Film review: ‘Happening’ takes viewers down a harrowing road

A pregnant woman in 1960s France seeks a procedure that is illegal


In a way, “Happening” couldn’t be more timely for U.S. audiences, although the events depicted in the new film from director Audrey Diwan take place in France in 1963.

The movie might as well be named “Harrowing,” because that describes the experiences facing the main character, Anne, played by Anamaria Vartololmei.

Anne is a young student in her 20s. She wants to pursue her studies more in order to hone her gifts as a writer — something atypical for a woman from a working-class background in 1960s France. And then she becomes pregnant. And the movie becomes a ticking time bomb of sorts, with segments labeled “Week 2,” “Week 3” and on and on, as Anne runs out of time to have an abortion, which was not decriminalized in France until 1975.

With the U.S. Supreme Court seemingly poised to strike down Roe v Wade, which decriminalized abortion in this country 50 years ago, Anne’s plight in “Happening” is something many Americans might face in the near future.

The great danger in tackling such a movie is that a director might cross a line and become strident and turn off viewers. Diwan succeeds in making a fine film through her artistic choices, including changes in the camera’s point of view, and changes in the use of sound.

Her efforts won her the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, and established her as a French director who is to be reckoned with.

As the movie begins, the director of photography, Laurent Tangy, follows Anne around her days at school, or at parties after hours. But the camera’s point of view starts to change when Anne finds out she’s pregnant. Tangy begins to shoot over Anne’s shoulder, seeing the world as she moves through it. The original cacophony of student life becomes muted, almost silent. It’s a portrayal of increasing solitude for a young woman who acts like a soldier, seeking a procedure that doctors won’t provide, and then going elsewhere.

As the weeks pass by, Anne becomes desperate. She sterilizes knitting needles and puts them up her uterus. When that doesn’t work, she goes to see a doctor who says he can’t do anything for her. Then she goes to see another doctor, who tricks her. And then she goes to an abortionist, of course.

All of these steps in Anne’s journey are explicit — the knitting needles, the probe introduced into the uterus. As Diwan says, “Only such disturbing images can make us aware of the horrors that were perpetrated on women’s bodies.”

Oddly enough, the word “abortion” is never used in the movie.

“What Anne is experiencing is taboo,” Diwan says in press notes. “Her suffering, both physical and moral, is the focus of some necessarily shocking sequences. … I never wanted to shock. But it seemed essential not to look away at such moments. And most of all, to film all the way through, without any cuts.”

Diwan adapted the screenplay from a novel by Annie Emaux.

“Happening” is playing in Austin at the Regal Arbor. It will also be on demand.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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