Despite its 60s France setting, Audrey Diwan’s drama soberingly reflects current events & the possible loss of reproductive freedom
Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is alone in Audrey Diwan’s Happening. Abandoned by her friends and the father of her unborn child, the young girl embodies the purest sense of loneliness. Set in 1963 France, the literature student finds herself in the uncompromising position of being pregnant at a time when abortion is illegal and prison or death remain the likeliest outcomes. Diwan’s drama uses an old-school aspect ratio, a cramped 1.37:1 frame that boxes in her protagonist. With a close lens, the French filmmaker crowds the student, pushing closer as her circumstance grows more dire. She can’t breathe, and neither can the audience, despite the measured storytelling. Anne’s clock is ticking.
Her anxiety continues to rise as she searches for a safe solution that doesn’t necessarily exist, a narrative that comes at this time of panic in the United States, and a week of political reckoning. Diwan’s film has a prescience that likely she didn’t expect, an understanding that women’s control over their own bodies has always been conditional, retractable even. Horrifying in its foresight, Happening obtains immense relevance by looking backwards, taking a moment in the past that could soon look like the present in some parts of the Western world.
With her future ahead of her, a career of teaching on the horizon, Anne begins taking every measure to terminate her pregnancy, carrying the burden largely alone. She injects drugs into her legs, she uses a rod in her room, before finally finding someone willing to help for the right fee, in a finale that adheres closer to a David Cronenberg film in the realm of body horror. Her pain is more than visible; it’s a tangible, recognizable, widespread kind of pain. Anne’s story is one of many, not unlike anybody else who had to go through the same months of agony and anxiety, almost regular in its suffering.
There’s a brutality to Diwan’s closeness, with no space or time to turn away as Anne’s life fluctuates towards the possibility of her own physical and emotional death. With her sophomore feature, the director opts for minimality, slowly closing the window of a young woman’s freedom, shooting each scene with a tender and realitist lens. People often talk about Anne as if she’s not there, as the camera seems to be the only living thing to see her. It becomes the only entry point into her life. It reports the facts of her pregnancy, and her increased isolation, with the intimacy of a partner.
With her sophomore feature, the director opts for minimality, slowly closing the window of a young woman’s freedom, shooting each scene with a tender and realitist lens.
At one point in the film, Anne’s friend tells her, “It’s not our problem…It’s none of our business.” There’s a blindness to those circling the young woman, fear mixed with apathy. Some are too busy with their own issues to care about hers, others simply don’t want to help. The film doesn’t try to act as a rallying cry for action, but, during this week, it’s easy to be taken as one. It creates a swell of frustration, sadness, and anger within you.
Vartolomei anchors the film as Anne, providing a quiet performance permeated with moments of physicality. She doesn’t get into screaming matches with her friends, rarely raising her voice to those around her. She internalizes all of these emotions, all of this stress, standing resolute in her conviction to take back control of her future. The actor is the only constant of the film, as others float in and out her months of pregnancy, with the camera invading her personal space in each scene. She seems unfazed, though, carrying Diwan’s film into a territory reserved for great films that don’t need a deep cast of characters to be successful. The director rests her film upon the shoulders of Vartolomei, and it more than works, it resonates.
Happening premieres alongside the threat, a constant one, of women’s reproductive rights being stripped away in the United States, taking the country back to pre-1973. It’s a terrifying reminder of how the world used to work, who still has the power to make change, and how many people still hope that the world reverts back to this level of control, this level of apathy, and this level of disregard for safe abortions. Diwan’s film becomes inherently political, a promise of what will happen if we allow Anne’s situation to, once again, become the norm.
Happening is now playing in theaters.