French director Audrey Diwan’s sophomore film Happening, which won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, is a stinging reflection of society’s biases towards women. Adapted from an autobiographical book by Annie Ernaux, its plot isn’t new. But the tale is worth retelling in light of the recent debate over women’s reproductive rights.
Without employing any moral messages, the film explores the repercussions and dangers of denying women sovereignty over their bodies. It is an honest, challenging, and emotionally engrossing art house film that unflinchingly discusses concerns regarding abortion. The concerns of the film closely resemble some of the contemporary films delving into similar issues, such as Vera Drake (2004), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), and Lingui (2022).
But Happening stands out in its treatment of the subject, which immediately draws us into the life of the protagonist, who’s just getting started but his future prospects are in peril. Diwan explores the emotional textures of the story with a visual intimacy and soothing rhythms that endow the film with a delicate touch.
The story of the film takes place in early 1960s France, a country where abortion was prohibited. Even talking about it in private was discouraged. The world of the film’s protagonist, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), looks full of possibilities for a bright future. She is a 23-year-old college student of literature who is stunning and self-assured and lives in a female dorm.
She frequents bars with her friends Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) and Hélène (Luàna Bajrami), where she drinks, flirts, and dances to rock ‘n’ roll. She occasionally visits her quiet but adoring parents, Gabrielle and Jacques, played by Sandrine Bonnaire and Eric Verdin, respectively, who manage a pub.
The bar is a cosy setting where Anne enjoys spending time with family, whether she is chatting with customers or doing homework in the back. But three weeks ago, she had a one-night fling with a decent, respectable student from another town. She is now completely taken aback by the fact that she is pregnant. It’s the worst possible news for a young woman who wants to pursue a long academic career.
Her future is about to be shattered because requesting an abortion puts the woman and anyone who assists her in danger of being arrested. She has to deal with a society that makes it difficult for her to even communicate what is happening to her, much less find people who could help her.
Diwan’s flair for storytelling is cleverly structured. Anne has a playful demeanor at the start of the film, with a sense of denial and a refusal to recall the tragic moment when she conceived.
The narrative doesn’t reveal the identity of the father at the beginning. The director allows us to examine Anne objectively as she struggles to accept the fact that she is pregnant as a result of her carelessness. We watch Anne undressing and inspecting her spotless underwear for indications of menstruation. Further, we see her lying half-naked and submitting to an examination by the stern male doctor, who contemptuously brushes aside Anne‘s lie of still being a virgin and informs her about the bitter reality.
He is sympathetic to Anne‘s plight but plainly states that he is unable to assist. While another doctor lies to her in order to get her to take medication that strengthens the embryo rather than destroys it. She also seeks help from Maxime (Julien Frison), the man who got her pregnant. But even he has his social limitations and can’t risk his career.
As a result, her only option is a backstreet abortion, which she doesn’t have direct access to. The dramatic intensity in the film escalates as she reaches nine weeks of her pregnancy and is still carrying the fetus. She has been psychologically affected to the point where her grades in school begin to suffer. In one of the scenes, Anne‘s virgin friend Brigitte demonstrates a sexual position to achieve pleasure during intercourse. Anne’s reaction is one of suppressed anger and frustration, a reflection of how the need to satiate her sexual desires has caused such havoc in her life.
Along with her cinematographer, Laurent Tangy, the filmmaker attentively composes Anne’s face in close-ups for indications of fluctuating impulse as well as the inexplicable pain of abortion and its aftermath. To put us inside her headspace, the camera is fixed tightly on her reactions at all times. The color palette of the film comprises cool tones and warm pastel colors, which work as a sad reminder of how the outside world ignores the protagonist’s plight.
Debutant Anamaria Vartolomei portrays Anne‘s experience in a controlled, intense performance as she navigates her daily life with uncertainty. She attends her lectures, spends jovial times with her friends, and covertly consults anatomical dictionaries in the library with restraint. Despite numerous obstacles, she doesn’t waver in her resolve to abort the fetus.
Happening exemplifies the double-facedness of morality in a society that disregards a woman’s sexual freedom and how frequently the tenacity and agency of their rights are undervalued. It’s a tribute to the triumph of the female spirit and recalls the stories of countless distraught women who’ve suffered similar tragedies.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.