Review: Happening is a confronting French drama about a woman seeking an illegal abortion | The standard


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Happening (R18+, 99 minutes) 4 stars It doesn’t quite render its original French title, L’Evenement meaning “the event”, but if the name by which this new film is known in English sounds vaguely without consequence, a note of caution. It is about a young woman, still a teenager, who becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion at a time when the procedure was illegal and very controversial. Happening is based on the book of the same name by Annie Ernaux, a prolific French author who drew inspiration from events in her own life, including an abortion in 1963. Anne Duchesne, as Ernaux was then known, is the main character here . She is played by Anamaria Vartolomei in a performance of rare depth. In the intimate opening moments, Anne is one of three young college students together, as inseparable as friends are at this age as they prepare for college and adult life. As they prepare for a night out at the club together, they are more of a unit than individuals, as besties are at this age, sharing gum and comparing bra sizes. Their upbringing in the classics, conjugating Latin verbs and drawing passionate comparisons between French literary giants, offers a rarefied contrast to the ongoing sexual awakening, but it’s true to the times. Communications studies were still below the horizon. From the start, the atmosphere created by director Audrey Diwan is one of excitement and anticipation of late adolescence, a time of experimentation and risk, where the lure of the unknown is strewn with pitfalls. When Anne finds out she’s pregnant, it’s a secret she doesn’t even tell her friends, Hélène (Luana Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero), for reasons that become clear. Director Diwan, also one of the screenwriters, has a wonderful talent for creating the private world of teenage girls. There is a conspiratorial and feverish atmosphere as they share their views on the young men they dance and drink with at the club. As they exchange confidences, they tumble into their own private experiences. Suddenly, a visit to the doctor confirms that Anne is pregnant. “Do something,” she exclaims. “You can’t ask me that,” he replies in one of the least confronting exchanges she has when she insists on getting help. During this moment of crucible, she must also decide what she wants to do with her life. The prospect of studying literature at university will take precedence. She is certain that she does not want to be a mother yet and becomes more and more desperate as the possibilities of intervention are reduced. Trying to induce a miscarriage with a knitting needle is one of many scenes that will disturb and shock, but the graphic content may be warranted in context. While abortion was opposed by many doctors and illegal in conservative France in 1963, there were few options open to a young woman like Anne. There was the hypocrisy of others to deal with. Anne is hit on by a male acquaintance because she was pregnant anyway, she is shunned by her dorm mates for aberrant behavior, and she is unable to ask friends or family for help. At this time in her life, Anne is an isolated figure. Trips home to see her mother, Gabrielle (Sandrine Bonnaire), and her father (Eric Verdin) bring some comfort. There is a beautiful and simple encounter around the radio as they are reunited at the kitchen table. Her parents share a laugh as their daughter watches smiling. It’s one of the many delicate moments of authenticity in Happening, winner of the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival last year. Likewise, the film is unforgiving as the camera follows Anne, perched on his shoulder during a procedure, always keen to convey her point of view. Among the final scenes, there is a single shot that produced a collective gasp in the cinema when I saw it. Confrontation, but still true to the moment. From the girls’ night out to the music of Buddy Holly and other early rock and rolls, to the urgent and accidental compositions in its later stages, this drama is about a quest for freedom narrowly and broadly. It is really impressive.




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William D. Babcock

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