Happening – movie review

In 1963, abortion was illegal in France. Happening is a harrowing tale about an intelligent student who unexpectedly falls pregnant but has to keep it a secret for fear of what could happen to her.

Her name is Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) and she is 23. She hangs around with her gal pals, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and Helene (Luana Bajrami) and like others their age they talk about boys. Then when her period doesn’t come on time Anne pays a visit to a doctor, only to discover – much to her alarm (although by then she suspects it) – that she is carrying a child. At that stage she is only three weeks into her pregnancy. The film follows Anne’s frantic endeavours to find a solution to her “problem” in the weeks and months that follow.

She lives in a dorm and visits her parents regularly, but she can’t tell them that she is pregnant because anyone who aids Anne’s endeavours to abort faces jail time. So even her closest friends abandon her. The guy who knocked her up in a casual encounter is no help and a male friend tries to take advantage of the situation. Anne’s studies, that she is so desperate to continue, suffer.  Her literture professor Bornec (Pio Marmai), who saw her as a fellow teacher in future, now can’t see her passing her university entrance exams. When he asks what is going on, she refuses to tell him.

As she reaches the 10 and then 12-week mark, Anne’s options have almost closed entirely. She feels increasingly isolated and abandoned.

Happening is a compelling movie, but a very difficult watch. Anamaria Vartolomei is superb in the lead role, displaying the full range of emotions.  I felt her frustration and fear, and metaphorically rode every bump. Her mood shifts as door after door closes. I also appreciated the naturalistic representation of the dutiful professor by Pio Marmai. His character tries to understand what’s going on, but retains a professional distance.

Director and co-writer Audrey Diwan has given the film an appropriately claustrophobic feel. She has done a fine job “trapping” Anne and then tightening the screws. In so doing, she has also commented on the rigid rules that constrained women at that time. The film is based on a novel by Annie Ernaux about her own experiences.

This is dour, intelligent filmmaking that doesn’t let up. Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice last year, there is much to appreciate about the way the subject matter is handled, as loathsome as what appears on screen may be. And a warning, some of it is not at all pretty.

Happening is in limited release

Alex First


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