‘Happening’ Review: A Potent French Abortion Drama That Takes Place in 1963, and Feels All Too Current

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Happening” does not extravagantly announce itself as a period piece, though gradually you figure it out. The young women on whom it’s focused speak in a way that sounds more or less contemporary, if you’re not thinking too hard about it. And if their outfits are a little dated, the film is shot in such tender, peering close-up on their smooth, hopeful faces that you scarcely notice. But then it clicks: The guys are wearing ties, phones are absent, the dancing in an early party scene is rather quaint. “Happening” is set, it turns out, in 1963, and you soon wish it felt altogether more distant from the present moment. For our protagonist, Anne, is 23 years old and unwillingly pregnant; determined to do something about it, she immediately finds every door in her world closed to her.

Audrey Diwan’s quietly devastating sophomore feature is the latest in an ongoing run of tough, emotionally intelligent art films dealing frankly with the subject of abortion access: It earns its place in the company of Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and Mahamet Saleh-Haroun’s recent “Lingui.”

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Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux (who also wrote the source for last year’s frank, feminine erotic drama “Simple Passion”), the story isn’t new, but bears repeating at a time when no ground gained in the longterm battle for women’s reproductive rights can be taken for granted. Without didactic rhetoric or politicking, “Happening” powerfully essays the risks of refusing women control over their bodies. As it premieres this week in competition at Venice, it’s impossible to watch it and not think of the recent, regressive change of abortion law in Texas. Fifty-eight years on from the film’s milieu, too few lessons have been learned.

“It suits them to think I’m a slut,” says gifted literature student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei, in what ought to be a career-elevating turn) of the prissy, puritanical mean girls in her Angoulême college dorm, who hawkishly monitor their peers’ bodies for signs of sexual activity, be it a hickey or an STD-betraying cold sore. As it happens, while not a virgin, Anne is pretty sensible and demure: Three weeks after an unseen fling with a nice, respectable student from another town, she couldn’t be more stunned to discover that she is with child.

For a young working-class woman with designs on an extended academic career, it’s the worst possible news. Continuing studies as a single mother isn’t an option for women like her in 1963, but terminating the pregnancy is, if anything, even more far-fetched. Potential prison time awaits those who are caught undergoing, executing or even enabling an abortion. “Don’t even joke about it,” a stricken friend of Anne’s, unaware of her friend’s condition, says when the mere subject is raised.

One doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) is sympathetic to Anne’s wishes but declares himself flatly unable to help; another tricks her into taking embryo-strengthening medication. Only the backstreet abortion circuit awaits, but it’s accessed by fretful, whispered word of mouth, and Anne has no direct line to it. As the weeks pass by — marked on screen in a subtly pressing countdown to a point of no return — “Happening” takes on the shape of a human thriller, with Anne’s options shutting down one by one. Once her belly begins to show, her life as she’s ambitiously constructed it is over.

Yet Diwan — stepping up considerably from her 2019 debut, the addiction study “Losing It” — feels no need to amplify the drama with exaggerated peril or additionally contrived conflict. It’s the general silence with which Anne’s life falls apart that makes the film so wrenching, as even the few people with whom she shares her plight mostly step back and urge her to let nature take its course. “Do as you please, it’s not our business,” counsels her best friend. With such tepid support from her peers, she hasn’t the heart to confide in elders, including her confused, concerned mother (Sandrine Bonnaire, affectingly low-key) or her doting, liberal-minded professor (Pio Marmaï) once her grades go alarmingly south. When she does find an ally in her social circle, it’s a jarringly unexpected one.

“Happening” is filmed and performed in such a delicate, skin-soft register, meanwhile, that the escalating terror of Anne’s situation is all the more pronounced, eventually pivoting into a realm of wholly realism-based body horror. Even once Anne attempts to assert physical control over the embryo growing inside her, her body responds in ways she can’t anticipate or manage: Three especially tough, visceral scenes — shot candidly but not exploitatively, via an empathetic female gaze — form a vivid cautionary tale for the dangers of unsafe, clandestine abortions. They’re no less horrifying, however, than the repeated occasions on which Anne is told — usually by men — to stop fighting and surrender her body to the law.

Restrained but never recessive on screen, Vartolomei carries this demanding lead role with tightly squared shoulders and a brave face that looks poised to crumple at any given second. There’s a jittery, insistent sense of fight to Anne that only just keeps her growing air of desperation in check. Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy intimately scrutinize her face for signals of changing impulse or sudden, howling stabs of pain, but only rarely cast her in shadow. Visually, “Happening” is characterized by cool spring light and blushing pastel tones, a pretty, cruel reminder of an outside world heedless to our heroine’s despair.

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