’60s Abortion Drama Rings True to the Current Tune

This review of “Happening” was first published on May 5 ahead of the film’s opening in New York and Los Angeles.

Rarely has there been a narrative film that feels more current than ‘Happening’, a French drama about the trials of a young woman attempting an abortion – in 1963.

Audrey Diwan (“Losing It”) based her second film, which won first prize at the Venice Film Festival last year, on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux. Although it’s a woman’s story, Diwan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano) directs it with an urgency that makes it clear: it could be anyone’s story.

Well, not just anyone, of course. But certainly anyone who finds themselves pregnant without access to a safe and legal abortion, which is the case of Anne (an excellent Anamaria Vartolomei). Until her calendar reveals the inevitable truth, Anne is no different from her best friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), who spend their days studying literature in college and their nights flirting with local boys. club.

But once Anne realizes how much time has passed since her last period, her whole world twitches. The morals of the day are so constrained that she feels obliged to tell her gynecologist that she is still a virgin. She lies to her anxious, overworked mother (Sandrine Bonnaire), who runs a bar and has no time to imagine her daughter’s unthinkable worry. As for her classmates, they still have the freedom to accept and enforce what she cannot yet see: law, culture and medicine have united to deem her unworthy.

Once she no longer reflects on others in a positive way – like a patient doctor can treat, a student teacher can impress, a friend who fits in effortlessly – she becomes useless. And as the weeks pass with terrifying rapidity, she realizes that she is truly alone.

Diwan’s on-the-fly staging, taken up by Laurent Tangy’s ultra-tight cinematography and the production’s naturalistic lighting and sound, draw us into the stifling immediacy of each passing day. Diwan noted that she was inspired by the films of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and there is a similar sense of liberal social realism here. We share Anne’s experiences, rather than watching them from a distance.

This empathetic approach also minimizes the withdrawal that could occur if “Happening” truly felt like it was set 60 years ago. It actually feels very modern, with no visible emphasis on nostalgic details. That said, the pop music, brief moments of dreamy beauty, and earnest debates over Camus versus Sartre—not to mention multiple scenes of young women jostling for physical and emotional space in crowded communal showers—remind us that we visit, indeed mid 20and France of the century.

“It’s not fair,” Anne insists, as one moment after another is decided by people who don’t care or even consider her needs. She is right, of course; nothing about his situation is fair. Judge, avoid, humiliate; anger, fear, pain – this is the language of Diwan’s story. To call it a tough watch would be an understatement; it often feels, in its sheer honesty, like a horror movie.

But Anne, by force of will, also makes room for the vocabulary of force and self-determination. Like Eliza Hittman’s more expansive “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” or Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” – which also follow a vulnerable young woman as she runs through a mapless maze – “Happening” serves to destabilize, expose and condemn. But also, and above all, to honor and implore.

“Happening” opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday after debuting in New York and Los Angeles on May 5.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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