- Colin Fraser
FOUR STARS A young woman falls pregnant. But it's 1960's France and abortion is illegal.
PERIOD DRAMA France (French language) #HAPPENING
Starring Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein
When Annie Erneaux’s novel HAPPENING was published in 2019, it made quite an impact. The autobiographical account of a young French woman who learns she is pregnant is both deeply personal and utterly harrowing - revealing a trauma that stayed with Erneaux all her life. Abortion in the 1960’s was illegal, even discussing the matter with a friend or doctor could land all of them with a sentence if not jail time. Adapted with great compassion and sincerity by director Audrey Diwan and screenwriter Marcia Romano, HAPPENING is, for all its probity, an intensely shocking experience.
The focus is squarely on Anne (the mesmerising Anamaria Vartolomei), a serious student with a bright future. When she learns she has fallen pregnant, it triggers a complex and far-reaching set of emotions. Shame is the first of them, the consequences for her and her family if anyone finds out are untenable. Knowing she can’t have the child, and with legal abortion out of the question - by law she can’t even ask a nurse for advice - Anne is left to work it out on her own.
In many ways, this can be seen a companion piece to 2004’s VERA DRAKE, Mike Leigh’s exceptional drama about illegal abortions in 1950’s Britain. Here the story is flipped to focus on the emotional agony forced upon a woman in desperate need of such a service. It highlights the silence, fear and ignorance that surrounds them, and the danger they’re subjected to. This is no better realised than in the escalating panic that Anne finds herself in, mounting week by week, as she seeks to terminate the pregnancy in social isolation.
Although her friends slowly realise her situation and help where they can (at least her close girlfriends do - her male friend just sees an opportunity for string-free sex), guiding her toward a backyard abortionist takes time. Having unsuccessfully engaged with a knitting needle, time is something Anne is quickly running out of. The dread is palpable.
Diwan chooses a tight, 4:3 ratio that keeps us boxed in with Anne throughout this ordeal; Vartolomei embodies her fear with such conviction it starts to leach out of the screen. This is not a simple performance of histrionics, in fact her soft yet compacted, forthright demeanour only makes it more dramatic. You can feel Anne’s soaring desperation as a relentless, ticking force that becomes our own; scene after toe-curling scene makes sure that it does.
HAPPENING is unrelenting and so it ought to be, this isn’t a throwaway subject. Although Diwan doesn’t spare us the graphic reality of Anne’s situation, and it is a challenge to watch, it’s neither preachy nor didactic. It’s brutal, yes, but it’s also compassionate, mindful of the millions of women like Erneaux who’ve endured this unnecessary ordeal. Some have survived, many more have not.