Audrey Diwan’s Happening — recipient of the prestigious Golden Lion award from last year’s Venice Film Festival — arrives stateside during an inflection point in American politics. Will the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling remain the law of the land, or will a Supreme Court majority strike down a decision that has protected women’s lives and their right to govern their bodies for nearly thirty years? Moreover, what could it mean for other countries whose governments are seeing a similar right-wing takeover if such regression were to happen? The issue of abortion is global, as is the fear women have of returning to the days of going to extreme methods to end a pregnancy, often resulting in self-harm or death.
Diwan’s sophomore feature is a cautionary reminder that returning to these dark times is a real possibility. Although set in 1963 France, the drama is shot without any aesthetic touchup to codify when it takes place. The color grade is unaltered; there are no wistful or nostalgic sequences that pay tribute to the period, nor is the date ever mentioned. The audience only knows this narrative existed before France legalized abortion in 1975 because of the conversations alluding to prison time should one be caught performing said procedure.
Our protagonist is Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a bright young student in preparatory high school who is knee-deep in her Literature studies. Should she pass her exams, university enrollment is on the guaranteed horizon, preventing her from following in her parents’ footsteps of flunking out and being forced to make a hometown living. The intense pressure for Anne and her peers cannot be overstated, but piling on an unexpected pregnancy only amplifies the worry that ambitions live or die on the battlefield of exam day. It also doesn’t help when her professor (Pio Marmaï) calls public attention whenever he notices a student distracted, especially ones he deems brimming with potential.
Diwan and co-writers Marcia Romano and Anne Berest do a sublime job adapting Annie Ernaux’s novel by instilling a palpable sense of dread and societal suffocation. Everyone in Anne’s orbit seems to have a say, opinion, or free dispensation of judgement regarding her life and body choices. This is obviously how all women felt before the legislation was put into place that weakened the power of such character maligning. Personal decisions pertaining to health should remain within the private walls of the individual and their loved ones or physicians. Yet, in Happening, Anne is unable to escape professors who view her rise or fall as a reflection of their own abilities, friends and classmates who treat her like a pariah for even the slightest hint of sexual experience, and lust-filled young men who see her as a vessel for reckless fun and nothing more.
Happening is not concerned with the “how” or “why” part of Anne’s pregnancy, although there are early scenes providing a list of clues as to who the father may or may not be. However, such initial obscurity is meant to show how meaningless his identity is since this is ultimately Anne’s journey and waking nightmare to deal with. Vartolomei is an exceptional discovery who embraces her character’s constant vulnerable state with an immeasurable display of grace and composure. Despite the effective fear in her eyes, Vartolomei radiates conviction and purpose. Even when events go beyond the point of exasperation and hope, Anne takes large gulps of air and proceeds to the next solution. Here is someone who may not say a whole lot or deviate from their introverted disposition — like any promising writer-to-be — but has the mental fortitude of titanium.
Like millions of women in her situation before her — at the precipice of having their futures stolen because of the government’s unwillingness to preserve a woman’s reproductive freedoms — Anne fights to the bitter end to ensure society has no say in the trajectory of her life. Happening is one of the year’s best international offerings because it pulls no punches, giving us a stifling and oppressive experience that is still only a fraction of what women experienced before abortion was decriminalized. To think we could revert back to such horrific times is unfathomable, but Diwan’s masterful human thriller posits that the past is only a law or two away from becoming the present. Make no mistake, Happening is “body horror” on realistic ground.