In recent years, American films about abortion have transcended expected genre (biopic) and tone (dour) to represent, more realistically, the diverse experiences of those who seek out the procedure. We’ve got buddy comedy road trips (Plan B); quiet, contemplative dramas (Never Rarely Sometimes Always); and star-studded reenactments of actual historical events (Call Jane, opening later this year). All are welcome, and all, as a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece argued, counter the cultural silence on abortion that “only reinforces ignorance and, too often, shame.”
‘Happening’ Tells an Old Abortion Story that Now Resembles the Future
But with an expected overturning of Roe v. Wade on the horizon, the next few years will likely yield more in the vein of Happening, Audrey Diwan’s tense film adapted from Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Happening takes place in 1963 France, when and where abortion is illegal. France’s past, America’s future: soon, movies about reproductive rights will become the exclusive purview of thrillers.
Happening follows Anne, a 23-year-old literature student who is pregnant but desires to not be. Played by Anamaria Vartolomei, whose beauty invites the cliché “eyes like limpid pools,” Anne is singly focused on—and excelling at—school. She has novels and poems to study, final exams to prepare for, and plans for a career that will transport her out of her lower-income upbringing.
Anne knows what she wants and is far less afraid than her peers to say what she is looking for. Before abortion was legalized in 1975, the French state vigorously prosecuted women who had abortions, along with those who performed them and even those who helped along the way. Turned down by her school doctor, friends and an off-campus physician, Anne grows more and more desperate.
Everyone at her school wants to have sex, but (the women, at least) are terrified of the risk. And so the girls of her dorm exert a moralistic policing of Anne’s body and their own bodies, constantly surveilling each other for any signs of promiscuous behavior. Looks and insults from a clique of popular girls add to Anne’s growing isolation.
In many ways, as Anne tries again and again to terminate the pregnancy, what happens in Happening is completely unsurprising. When abortions are illegal, people will still do whatever they can to get abortions; it’s just the circumstances and safety of those scenarios that change.
But Diwan’s tight focus on Anne—on her face, in pain; or the back of her head as she leaves a party with someone unsuitable—grounds the film in one woman’s increasingly harrowing experience. Adding to the tension are intertitles that count up the weeks of the pregnancy. By the time we reached 10, I was biting my nails.
Happening also excels at showing just how all-consuming an unwanted pregnancy can be. Anne, once “professor material,” starts slipping in class. Her relationships deteriorate. The stakes are her entire future: If she fails to get an abortion in time, her academic career will be over. If she does succeed, but ends up in the hospital, her fate rests in a doctor’s determination of “miscarriage” or “abortion.” Death is a very real possibility.
Every review of this film will mention how the subject matter is important and timely, especially for U.S. audiences. But already, for so many Americans, accessing safe, affordable abortions can be insurmountably difficult. Many live in a reality not unlike 1963 France. And soon, the number of people who recognize their own experiences in Happening will likely grow. The film is not newly timely, just as it is not a new story. It is a version of events that has been happening for centuries, across the globe, and will continue as long as there are people who wish to control their own destinies.
‘Happening’ opens in the Bay Area on May 16 at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas (Berkeley); The New Parkway (Oakland); AMC Metreon 16, Marina Theatre, Landmark Opera Plaza Cinemas (San Francisco); Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael); and Rialto Cinemas (Sebastopol).