(Written by Allison Brown)
Happening, natively titled L’événement, piqued my interest when it was chosen for Venice last year, and was only furthered when the film took home the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion. The feminist drama is adapted from a novel by Annie Ernaux, which details her personal endeavor to terminate an unwanted pregnancy while it was outlawed in 1960s France. It may not be the most unique film, as other similar abortion films like 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always have joined the ranks of a budding abortion subgenre, but it is perhaps one of the most unwavering and graphic depictions.
The narrative follows Anne Duchesne’s firsthand account. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a 23-year-old student studying literature at Cité Universitaire, surrounded by her friends, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), Hélène (Luàna Bajrami), and Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein). The culture that Anne lives in provides much less career potential for women than modern days; one of Anne’s peers quits school solely to get married. Anne is slut-shamed and bullied by other girls, one of which puts a graphic sexual illustration in her schoolbook. Her body is on full display for her peers, as they share a communal shower. This, in particular, made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I am grateful that my experience in college was not like this.
Anne, Brigitte, and Hélène spend many of their nights dancing at a local bar, where Anne eventually meets Maxime, a fireman from Bordeaux studying history. The girls pull up their skirts to be shorter, and adjust their bras to make themselves more appealing for the male gaze. However, for the most part, they are each a self-proclaimed tease. At least, this is what the audience is made to believe, until Anne discovers that it has been far too long since her last period. It is at this point where the film branches into segments depicting weeks, assumably of pregnancy.
Anne visits a male doctor, seemingly the only option in this sexist time, and explains that she has stomach cramps. He asks her if she has been sexually active, and Anne continues to deny the prospect. Ultimately, the doctor proclaims she is pregnant, and while she begs for help, he says he cannot do anything. Those who abort and those who assist are both bound to end up in jail. “Every month, a girl tests her luck and ends up dying in extreme pain.” If women successfully make it to the hospital after an abortion, their fate is in the hands of the nurses declaring their medical case. If marked as a miscarriage and the woman recovers, she is free to continue her life. If marked as abortion, then the woman is immediately sent to jail after she heals. It is incredibly sad that one’s future is fully dependent on others after a natural mistake. Anne desperately wants to complete her studies and not fall victim to “the illness that only strikes women and turns them into housewives.” This begins the primary conflict of the film.
Her friends and the father are completely unsupportive due to fear of arrest, and conservative-minded doctors trick her into paying for treatments that make her situation more dire. She resorts to primitive measures that are extremely painful to watch. I winced along with Anne at every turn, and just seeing the objects she chooses are enough to make the audience physically sick. Men consistently attempt to take advantage of her situation, and the only people in the medical field who offer her any sufficient form of support are women themselves. It is so despicable to see society framed like this in the 60s, yet we have not moved forward as much as I would have hoped.
Anamaria Vartolomei is stunning as Anne. Her plight is believable, and her wide array of emotions are palpable. Anxiety and discomfort are fully at a peak when watching her experience each procedure. The story told solely through the expressions on her face while in severe pain is more than enough to carry the film. Her parents, friends, and doctors serve as tertiary characters and barely receive much of a backstory. However, that is not necessary as Anne’s struggle is the focal point of the film.
Abortion films detailing the dangers of strict regulation are vital for cinema now more than ever. With the abysmal law passed last year, the United States took a huge backslide from freedoms awarded in Roe v. Wade. Abortions in Texas are now prohibited after about six weeks of pregnancy, allowing no exemptions for rape or incest. Anyone who assists in the abortion, whether in the actual procedure or in general, is at risk of a lawsuit with a hefty fine. This doesn’t sound so different from life in France in the 1960s. Director Audrey Diwan’s film details the hard truth: laws will not stop abortions. Procedures will only become more unsafe, and potentially put the lives of young pregnant women at risk. This film should be shown to pro-life Americans who think women do not deserve an essential human right: to have control over their own bodies.
Happening premieres at Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, January 22nd, and will expand to audiences to depict the hard truth in a limited theatre release on May 6 of this year.