Directed by Audrey Diwan.
Starring Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luàna Bajrami, Louise Orry-Diquéro, Pio Marmaï, Sandrine Bonnaire, Cyril Metzger, Anna Mouglalis, Fabrizio Rongione, Julien Frison, Alice de Lencquesaing, François Loriquet, Louise Chevillotte, Leonor Oberson, Louis Bédot, Isabelle Mazin, Eric Verdin, Édouard Sulpice, Leila Muse, and Madeleine Baudot.
An adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s eponymous novel, looking back on her experience with abortion when it was still illegal in France in the 1960s.
Happening is that rare, unflinching, suffocatingly harrowing autobiographical story that must be seen and mandated as part of sex education/history courses worldwide. Much like Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, director Audrey Diwan (who also wrote the screenplay alongside Marcia Romano, adapting the novel Annie Ernaux) utilizes shock value images with a searing purpose for its sensitive topic. During the back half of Happening, some moments will be charred into the mind forever, and to be honest, they should be. It’s a film about the past that queasily becomes more relatable to the present day by the minute.
Anamaria Vartolomei is literature student Anne Duchesne (presumably, a stand-in for the novel’s author) rooming with a pair of university girlfriends. Of the many activities and hobbies they share, flirting with guys at a bar happens to be one. Soon after, one of the more sexually curious friends confesses to being a virgin while also putting on a demonstration of grinding using a pillow for a man’s body. Many of the women frequenting this bar appear to crave that intimate experimentation yet are also terrified to follow through.
Given that these are primarily bright academics with hopes and dreams ahead of them, their trepidation during the time and location of 1960s France makes sense. If you happen to get pregnant, you’re throwing all of that away. “Everyone here wants the same thing,” Anne declares, and it’s undoubtedly frustrating watching these women deprive themselves of something harmless and healthy, but they should be able to do without fearing prison or death on the off chance that they might get pregnant choose an abortion. The men are also aware of this, disappointingly preying on women that have conceived, attempting to persuade them to enjoy themselves since they are already pregnant.
More to the point, Anne is pregnant. As such, her sharp classroom focus is waning, immeasurable levels of stress begin to take over, her facial expressions grow distant and disassociated, and she is nervous to tell anyone, friends or family, not just for privacy reasons but because knowledge of her seeking illegal abortion options would make them complicit in her “crime”. Infuriatingly, the most conversation regarding the pregnancy and potential abortion is between her and male doctors that are quick to shame her and remind her of grim consequences. Making matters more urgent, Happening also employees screen graphics telling viewers how far along the pregnancy is, like it’s a ticking clock inside a body horror movie.
Without question, Anamaria Vartolomei delivers one of the boldest, bravest, and most engaging performances involved in such a situation. As the walls start closing in with desperation creeping in, Anne resorts to drastic measures that are beyond uncomfortable to watch but necessary as a blunt force instrument hammering home the mental and physical pain of someone’s entire life spiraling all because they don’t have a choice that they should always have. There’s also a wise decision not to bring the would-be father into the drama too much, always ensuring that the story is centered on Anne. However, other threads, including her relationships with her friends and family, don’t feel as fully defined as they could be, bringing down aspects of the first half. Then again, that detachment also adds to immersing viewers in Anne’s upsetting experience, so there is a fair trade-off.
Not to be cliché, but Happening is an important film. It needs to be seen. While it may not realize its full potential in every aspect of filmmaking, the last 30 minutes or so are excruciatingly intense. Audrey Diwan has crafted something special with unforgettable imagery and a dizzying, stressed-out riveting turn from Anamaria Vartolomei, embodying a punishment and pain no woman should ever suffer.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com