As American women prepare for official Supreme Court rulings in Roe v. Wade, a French drama focused on abortion makes its way into theaters. A winner at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and 2022 BAFTA nominee, Happening from director Audrey Diwan follows a college girl’s journey to end her pregnancy. Based on the novel by Annie Ernaux, Happening brings compassion to a story many women have faced, and many have been forced to endure.
Happening follows the story of Anne (Amamaria Vartolomei), a girl attending college in the 1960s. One night her friends bring her to a party, and as the night goes on, she begins talking to boys. Over the next few weeks, she begins to experience pregnancy symptoms. She decides to end her pregnancy, but during the 1960s, abortion is illegal in France. Determined to carry through with her plan, Anne explores the options that may land her in prison.
The weight of Happening drops on Vartolomei’s performance and Diwan’s direction. Both are more than up to the task as they craft a subtle, internal story for much of the film. Doing so allows Happening to directly confront the frustrations and mental toll of the process. The decision for Anne to end her pregnancy is just one moment in a string of events that changes her relationships.
While her peers may not know of Anne’s pregnancy, questions about sex and relationships hang over her. Men begin to ogle her, many of which become more physical in their pursuit once they believe she is open to sex. Women start to shame her for her sexuality, calling her loose and speculating what STDs she may carry. Diwan’s screenplay leaps off the page, providing cutting insight into the microaggressions that embracing one’s sexuality may create for women.
Diwan’s decision to keep the story as focused as possible pays dividends early. She embraces a highly subjective perspective, following Anne’s point of view. Diwan chooses never to show the intimate moments that lead to the pregnancy but instead embraces a moment of perceived sexual liberation. This decision may puzzle some but reaffirms the lonely and personal journey that Anne must take. Diwan’s intentions are simple, and while pregnancy may be possible through the actions of two people, only one carries the burden of its ramifications. It also highlights the truth that pregnancy does not turn off our need for intimacy.
Vartolomei provides a masterclass in internal performance. While the film’s events are strictly happening to her, her ability to embody a wallflower persona allows the film to explore Anne’s relationships fully. Vartolomei creates a character so emotionally vulnerable and raw that she cannot bear to admit the story is happening to her. At times, the performance verges on impressionistic, as if we’re hearing a story told in the third person. Yet when the film’s most harrowing moments are brought to light, Diwan places the camera directly in Vartolomei’s face. This trust results in some of the most devasting moments of the film. This is a tour-de-force performance from beginning to end.
While Diwan controls the film’s tone and vision, her collaboration with cinematographer Laurent Tangy proves extremely important. Tangy and Diwan craft a personal visual style that adds depth to Vartolomei’s performance. They capture Vartolomei’s stillness and emotion in her eyes when the camera comes to a rest. However, they switch to a handheld camera when she feels unmoored and vulnerable, adding to the visual chaos. Longer takes to keep us fixated on the drama unfolding, forcing the audience to experience Anne’s trauma. You can feel the horror seeping through the screen.
Finally, the 1960s setting hammers home the regressive nature of a world without access to abortion. Women speak in whispers about the choice, even shutting down dialogue. There is fear, not just for the procedure, but for Anne’s consequences if she is found out. The secretive system to finding a doctor takes a mental toll on Anne that causes her relationships to deteriorate around her. As Diwan and Vartolomei let us into a world that deliberately forces women to choose between life and death, the stakes have never been more apparent.
A harrowing but essential story for today, Happening signals the arrival of an incredible filmmaker. Diwan’s approach never pulls punches and, at the same time, never loses its focus. Armed with a brilliant screenplay and astonishing vision, Happening delivers one of the most emotional experiences of the year.