Review: French abortion drama ‘Happening’ is essential viewing

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From left to right, Louise Orry-Diquero, Anamaria Vartolomei and Luàna Bajrami in “Happening”.

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The most timely film screened in the United States is a French film set in the early 1960s. Houston Fine Arts – be wonderful, urgent and intimate and terrifying in a way that makes more sense every day.

Based on the memoir of Annie Ernaux, “Happening” tells the story of Anne (a stunning Anamaria Vartolmei), a laser-focused student who is set to graduate near the top of her class and pursue a career in teaching of literature. When she is not studying, she hangs out with her friends (Luàna Bajrami and Louise Orry-Diquéro) and lends a hand in the family restaurant, where her mother (Sandrine Bonnaire) holds court. When Anne starts to feel bad, she tells herself that it’s nothing. She is wrong. It turns out that she is pregnant, which means she has two choices under what was then French law. She can have a baby and give up on her life plans. Or she may seek an abortion and risk going to jail.

In this world, everyone is afraid to utter the word “abortion”, lest the law find out. Steely and determined, Anne asks around him: the doctors, one of whom secretly prescribes drugs that strengthen the embryo; to men, one of whom proposes to her, arguing that she has nothing to worry about since she is already pregnant; and to her classmates, most of whom ostracize her as if she had a scarlet “A” on her forehead. As the weeks pass and her panic saps her focus and performance in class, Anne contemplates desperate measures.

More information

‘Happening’ (The Event)

To classify: For disturbing material/images, sexual content and graphic nudity

Operating time: 100 minutes

When: 7 p.m. May 13-14; 2 p.m. May 15

Or: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet

Tongue: In French with English subtitles

Details: $9 general, $7 seniors; mfah.org/movies

4 out of 5 stars

“Happening” is just the latest film to depict the lengths young women must go to secure their own reproductive rights. Others include the heartbreaking Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and Austin’s “Test Pattern”. There’s even a girl power buddy comedy, “Plan B”, which is quite funny. But there’s something surprisingly real about “Happening,” perhaps because it’s so firmly rooted in Ernaux’s past. What should Anne do if she is taken, she asks. The answer: I hope a doctor will say it was a miscarriage. The “happening” shrinks from nothing, socially or medically. Director Audrey Diwan wants you to feel every detail of what it’s like to have to risk your life for control.

Diwan uses a moving camera to isolate Anne in her crisis, capturing her as she moves from place to place, searching for a solution. She does not waver. She knows she’s not ready to be a mother and she doesn’t want to either. Her conviction is such that she ends up putting herself in dangerous places. She is alone in every way, bound by laws that determine what she can and cannot do with her body.

Named Best Picture at last year’s Venice Film Festival, “Happening” was obviously made before news of the Supreme Court’s plan to overturn Roe v. Wade broke last week. But the timing of the film’s release in the United States is odd. It’s a haunting look at a real world where abortion isn’t safe or legal, where a court of mostly older men has the power to tell a woman what to do with her pregnancy. It’s both a throwback and a crystal ball. It is absolutely essential.

Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer.




  • Chris Vognar

    Chris Vognar is a reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

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