The French abortion drama Happening is vital filmmaking made even more resonant by recent news

click to enlarge Life isn't a party for Anamaria Vartolomei's Anne in Happening.
Life isn't a party for Anamaria Vartolomei's Anne in Happening.

Happening is a drama about a young student in small-town France in 1963 who needs an abortion, a medical chore made extremely difficult because abortion is outlawed. I first saw this French film in early March, and it was a harrowing and very necessary cinematic experience.

I watched Happening again just after the Supreme Court leak indicating the justices will overturn Roe v Wade, effectively outlawing abortion across wide swaths of America. Anyone paying attention in recent years knew this was coming, but the seeming confirmation was shocking anyway. Watching this film for the second time with the almost certain knowledge that what it depicts may soon no longer be historical but current reality felt like a kick in the teeth.

I cannot overstate the urgency of this film; movies don't get much more essential than this. It's true that anyone who thinks abortion should be illegal is unlikely to seek out an extremely sympathetic dramatization of the trauma of being pregnant when you do not want to be, when remaining pregnant will derail the future you are working toward. But even those who adamantly support safe, legal access to abortion should see this. I suspect many people, particularly anyone too young to remember how things used to be, do not appreciate just what a nightmare reproductive health care for anyone who can get pregnant was once like, and might soon be again.

With startling intimacy, director Audrey Diwan immerses viewers into the psyche of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), an independent living woman in her early 20s who discovers she is pregnant as she is preparing to take the rigorous entrance exams to a prestigious university. Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy utilize a throwback 1.37:1 aspect ratio, a squarish look that replicates films of that era. But — far more importantly — the frame constrains Anne. She is boxed into her predicament, with no easy way out.

Onscreen labels count off the progress of her pregnancy — "3 weeks," "4 weeks," on and on — while she desperately explores her incredibly limited options even as she is unable to talk directly to anyone about them. "The law is unsparing," her appalled doctor tells her when she alludes to termination; prison is a real possibility for anyone who helps her. Other men take appalling advantage of her vulnerability and the ignorance about pregnancy that her world has inculcated in her. She has close female friends, but dares not mention her situation to them either... and the judgment of other nasty, catty young women at school scarcely bears thinking about. Internalized misogyny is real: girls and women can be brutal enforcers of patriarchy when being a "good girl" elevates you, if just slightly, above the "bad girls." Female solidarity, where Anne finds it at all, is cold and meager.

An adaptation by Diwan and Marcia Romano of Annie Ernaux's semi-autobiographical short novel called L'événement, the original title translates to "The Event." And we may presume that what happens now will be the defining moment of Anne's existence. Whether she dies having a back-alley abortion (not unlikely) or succeeds in the termination or has the baby; whether she ends up in prison; whether she will go on to have the life she wants, on her own terms and her own schedule, or not. The isolation of her experience — even as so many other women are walking the same path — is deadening.

This is a horror movie. Anne's life narrows down to hushed euphemisms as her schoolwork suffers and as her time runs out. Vartolomei's intense performance is one of focused terror, one she must keep still and silent with lest anyone guess what she is enduring. Happening is body horror evoked by knitting needles and medical instruments prepared on a kitchen table, more suggestive than outright graphic, but that's enough. This is what we're staring down once again. Do not look away. ♦

Four Stars HAPPENING
Rated R
Directed by Audrey Diwan
Starring Anamaria Vartolomei
At the Magic Lantern Theatre

All Sorts @ Magic Lantern Theatre

May 20-25, 7 p.m.
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Maryann Johanson

Maryann Johanson