Happening is a deceptively quiet punch to the gut. Much like its focused, determined protagonist Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), Audrey Diwan’s film moves with a forceful urgency, free of distracting histrionics or preaching. It’s a lean drama about a young woman seeking an abortion in 1960s France, but every scene feels as if it could take place today, especially in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe vs. Wade decision. Anne’s story should be viewed by all, regardless of their beliefs regarding the issues at hand, as it deftly steers clear of didacticism and asks audiences to enter this young woman’s experience on a far more visceral and spiritual level than is often found on screen.
Anne is first introduced as a young student whose future promises to be bright. She’s admired by professors and popular with classmates. But when a missed period sends her to a doctor who informs her that she is pregnant, Anne and the film kick into a disarmingly propulsive pace as she moves to put an end to the unwanted problem at a time when abortion was illegal in France. She is met, at nearly every turn, with dismissal and degradation, from doctors, from friends, from those who know her and those who couldn’t care less about her, but she remains determined to free herself, even at the risk of imprisonment or death.
This search for an illegal abortion takes up all of Happening’s running time and the mood grows increasingly like that of a thriller. Diwan and co-writer Marcia Romano adapted the screenplay from a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux and these real-life roots add to the verité style and suspense. The unvarnished approach is less about teaching the audience a lesson and more about inviting all to absorb the on-the-ground agony that Anne is forced to weather as she navigates an increasingly alienating environment. Each step of the way brings her into contact with a society that wants to simultaneously punish and ignore her. Compassion seems a foreign concept to even Anne’s closest companions.
Happening is not easy viewing. It focuses on Anne’s experiences in ways that can be felt somatically and this intensity, especially when she secures a meeting with an abortion provider, will trigger many viewers. But, even in its most difficult scenes, Happening’s sensitivity to the self-possessed choices of its main character is apparent. This is not sensationalism or propaganda; this is film as faithful support for bodily autonomy and individual choice.
On its own, the story is a fascinating period character study, offering an uncommonly raw rendering of Anne’s complicated coming of age in a long-ago era. But with the added layer of recent real-life rollbacks of reproductive rights, Happening becomes an affectingly immediate exhortation. Even its title adds to the emphatic insistence; it can be read as a noun or, more appropriately, as a desperate verb. Stories like Anne’s not only happened long ago; they are happening and will continue to happen, more and more, in more and more places, especially if access to abortion is pushed back into the shadows. Happening asks its viewers to not only consider a walk in Anne’s historical shoes but to explore who they will need to be in a future world that seems to be moving backwards.