“I will do it by myself.” We hear those words a lot from Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), the calmly determined 23-year-old who grounds every scene in the tense and harrowing French drama “Happening.” She is used to taking care of herself, whether she is in a literature class, where she dissects a poem with ease, or on a crowded dance floor, where she attracts and diverts a lot of men’s attention. It’s telling that director Audrey Diwan often films Anne from behind, her dark brown hair tied back in a ponytail that swings slightly as the camera follows her down a sunny street or dark hallway. Anne always seems to know where she is going, even when the unthinkable happens and her life and body start to feel like strangely foreign territory.
“Happening,” winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival last fall, follows Anne over a period of weeks as she seeks to terminate a pregnancy. Since the story takes place in 1963, when abortion was still illegal in France, her ordeal takes place under a miserable cloud of shame and secrecy. The film, adapted by Diwan and Marcia Romano from the much-watched 2000 memoir Annie Ernaux, is set in the southwestern town of Angoulême, where Anne is an excellent university student. But it also takes us back to a more widely recognizable time when doctors couldn’t perform abortions openly for fear of losing their license or worse, and where even the simple act of helping a woman have an abortion could lead a person into prison.
And as the events of the past week in the United States have reminded us, this era, seemingly locked in the past, may well be the future that awaits us. Diwan, rolling out period details with a subtle hand, immerses us in an early ’60s vision that, without a few plaid skirts and payphones, could pretty much pass for today. To say this movie is timely would be both an understatement and a bit of a misnomer, because the battle for women’s bodily autonomy has never been a hot issue. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to praise “Happening” for its urgency, not only because it arrives in American theaters under particularly difficult circumstances, but also because of the heart-pounding suspense and heartbreaking intimacy the director brings. to the story.
Diwan keeps us close to Anne at all times, but resists the urge to spell out what she might be thinking or feeling at any moment. Anne is quiet and unassuming, especially compared to her talkative classmates, and “Happening” shares her quietness to some extent. It’s a bit of a surprise – to the audience, as well as to Anne – when she learns she’s pregnant, the result of an off-screen fling with a young man from a nearby town. And Anne need hardly articulate the limited options facing a working-class woman in her position – dropping out of school, marriage – to make it clear that she intends to pursue a different strategy.
The aforementioned young man is no help, nor are the two male doctors she sees: the first is sympathetic, while the second practically throws her out of his office. Anne hides the pregnancy from her parents (the great Sandrine Bonnaire plays her stern and loving mother), and the few classmates she confides in send shivers down her spine, partly for fear of being blamed if she gets an abortion. But it also stems from an atmosphere of sexual judgment that is as lustful as it is puritanical, as evidenced by an uncomfortable harassment scene in a dorm shower. In this moment and others, “Happening” proves particularly insightful into the attitudes and carnal anxieties of a time not quite on the cusp of a sexual revolution, five years before the earthquakes of cultural and political land of May 1968 (and 12 years before the French legalization of abortion in 1975).
Whatever it may shed light on the past or the future, “Happening” is limited to a fast-paced and suspenseful present. As Anne’s body begins to betray her and her academics and relationships suffer, the film becomes a timed thriller, with chapter markers indicating the passage of another week of her pregnancy. Géraldine Mangenot’s tense editing and Laurent Tangy’s fluid hand-held camera work generate an air of relentless naturalistic tension that kicks up several notches once Anne takes matters into her own hands – first by attempting the abortion, then turning to the black market. Graphic, unforgiving but never exploitative, “Happening” doesn’t shy away from the bodily horrors of a painful, invasive and sometimes painfully attenuated procedure. Nor does she forget the perils of having to accomplish it and submit to it in secret.
But not necessarily alone, as Anne discovers little by little and with satisfaction. She’s used to self-sufficiency, and Vartolomei, her piercing blue eyes telegraphing distrust, alarm, frustration and resolve, shows us a woman used to dealing with a problem and its solution in the same instant. It is therefore unexpectedly moving that gestures of compassion and grace come to Anne precisely when she needs them: during a one-on-one conversation with a friend, or the pragmatic care of a stranger (the remarkable deep-voiced Anna Mouglalis). Like some of the best abortion rights dramas to emerge in recent years, including “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Happening” is a realistic thriller that transforms , without sentimentality or platitudes. , in a quietly moving portrait of female solidarity. It’s a great company for a movie. But it manages.
(In French with English subtitles)
Evaluation: R, for disturbing material/images, sexual content and graphic nudity
Operating time: 1 hour 39 minutes
Playing: Begins May 6 at AMC the Grove, Los Angeles, and Landmark, West Los Angeles