dir: Audrey Diwan
I’ve seen many films in my time on this planet. Many of them have been thrillers, ticking time bomb stuff, stop the villain or the world gets it kind of stuff, where the result is never in question.
This flick, Happening, being its English title, is one of the tensest exercises in the format, and then there is no bomb set to explode, no villain to be thwarted with seconds to spare.
The terror induced with the feeling of impending doom is whether young French university student Anne (Anamarie Vartolomei) will be able to figure out a way to legally or illegally terminate her pregnancy before it ruins her life and stops her from completing her literature exams.
Abortion. Let’s not dance around it – she’s trying to get an abortion at a time in France where abortions are profoundly illegal. It’s, as far as I can tell, the early 1960s. Women have only had the vote for about 15 years. During the war, thanks to the Nazis, women were guillotined for providing this necessary and life saving health care to other women.
This is a fictional telling of it, but it’s based on the real story of what author Annie Ernaux, who wrote the book this is based on, and who received the Nobel Prize for Literature about a month ago, went through in order to survive. That the author is still alive, thankfully, and in her 80s now, still writing, is a testament to choices made, and to having the choice to make, that every woman should have.
The majority of the flick proceeds chronologically, starting at about 3 weeks, up to around 12 weeks. Twelve weeks of what, you might ask? Well, of her pregnancy, of course, her unwanted pregnancy.
She sees this unwanted intrusion into her life as a terrible fate worse than death. She and her other friends really want to hang out with guys (and by hang out I mean fuck), but they live in a time when birth control isn’t that reliable, men have never been reliable, and pregnancy generally means the end of your dreams, especially if you have ones based on educating yourself out of your parent’s basement.
Anne has formed some idea of what she wants out of her life, and it doesn’t include dropping a baby before she’s even completed her baccalaureate. As a single unwed mother she’d be relegated to pariah status and likely poverty, you know, just like millions of other women throughout history.
Whenever she broaches the subject with people, whether they’re doctors or her friends, everyone acts like she’s just said Voldemort or “Candyman” in the mirror one too many times: the word itself is terrifying to people, and they treat the very idea as being radioactive. They are terrified to be overheard, terrified of being arrested just for talking about it, let alone trying to organise an abortion.
This really profoundly conservative time in France’s past contrasts greatly with what we think about in terms of the popular view of France as being overrun with libertines and absinthe-addled intellectuals and people fucking each other at the drop of a Simone De Beauvoir novel. The reality probably is that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive: a place can have a bunch of selfish guys fucking around like there’s no tomorrow, while simultaneously shaping a society that places all of the burdens and the stigma on women, and none of the responsibilities on the men.
Yes, the enemy is the patriarchy, whether it’s the other women in Anne’s halls of residence trying to slut shame her, or the doctors who not only won’t help her, but actively lie to her and give her opposite medical advice, almost in a spiteful fashion.
“So, mademoiselle, you seek to end your pregnancy? Well, take this medication, and I will absolutely GUARANTEE that you will have this baby!”
The film maintains the tension throughout, with a lot of the soundtrack solely comprising a single note from a plucked violin string. We never doubt that the stress is mounting on Anne, the further along she gets, the more concerned she becomes about showing or being found out. When she finally “confesses” to her friends about why her studies are suffering and why she’s so freaked out all the time, they all but abandon her, fearful of being contaminated by her. Even the friend, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) who most wants the sex they are meant to be denying themselves, who without entirely understanding what she’s doing practically masturbates in front of them without realising it, she condemns her most viciously.
There are limits to the sisterhood, I think the film is saying, and the way the state controlled the sexuality of women and the course of their lives by imposing such a ban on abortion necessarily also impacted on how women did or didn’t support each other in the face of these obstacles. So whenever people tell you they want to re-impose these restrictions on women, whether it’s in France, in America where some women now have less rights than they had 50 years ago, or in Australia, they’re not doing it because they give a single fuck about babies. It’s to control far more than just whether women are forced to give birth or not – it impacts on every aspect of women’s lives.
And Anne knows this because she lived it, and she lived to tell the tale, so we know she doesn’t die after a back alley procedure, nor in a botched hospital visit. She lives, but by God does it seem touch and go for a long while.
This flick does not shy away from the physical or practical aspects of abortion, nor does it place a lot of limits on Anne in terms of how far she is prepared to go to induce a miscarriage. While not explicit in most cases, it doesn’t look away when procedures are being done, whether self-inflicted (the horrific knitting needle of times of yore) or by someone with a lot more experience (Anna Mouglalis). It forces us to confront the reality while still, throughout, emphasising that Anne should never have been placed in this position, this necessity should not have rested solely on her shoulders.
When she interacts with the jerk who impregnated her, who lives far away in Bordeaux, he is less than helpful, in fact he’s a total fucking jerk, so there isn’t even the alternative potential path of being forced into a shotgun wedding with some hick who chatted her up in a bookshop.
Finally, one of her friends, who’s still a jerk because he tries to have sex with her, telling her since she’s pregnant, well, what’s the risk, but he heard from someone who heard from someone etc etc. It’s the moment she and we have been waiting for as a way out of this terrible predicament. Everything seems to be falling apart as the weeks mount up, as the pregnancy gets further along, and Anne becomes more estranged from the people around her.
Part of the dilemma, one shared by her friends, is that fucking up at uni means having to go back home. Most of these “kids”, how ever bright, are not from affluent backgrounds, and uni represents the ticket out of having to go back to the farm or, in Anne’s case, back to her parent’s rural bar. She visits them from time to time, and while there’s a tension there, while it seems that her mum (Sandrine Bonnaire) might be intuiting that something is wrong, she never tells them. She does, in a late scene, seem to reconcile herself to her parent’s limitations, and accepting them as they are (it’s deftly done, wordless, it’s in a look and a hug, but it’s powerful).
Many of the times when she’s asked what’s wrong, she doesn’t actually explain or offer excuses. She tends to remain silent because the problem she’s facing is so insurmountable without getting what she needs. This impacts how we, the audience, feel about Anne as a character. I don’t mean whether we get all judgey or not. I cannot imagine someone who is anti-women’s rights and anti-abortion watching this film. Cannot. Imagine. It. They’ll rant and rave about the existence of the film, and claim they’ve watched it, but you just know they never actually watched it.
Why would they need to? They already hate women, why would they spend any time trying to understand what pressures Anne was living under in that time and place?
So from my perspective anyone who’s going to watch a flick like this already is onboard with women having the right to make decisions about their own health and the course of their lives. But maybe that wasn’t Anne Enraux’s assumption. Most of her writing, from what Wikipedia tells me, is autobiographical, including and especially the book this is based on. She waited until long after to publish it (abortion being legalised in 1975 in France), but this is her story, this is about the lengths she had to go to in order to hold onto the life she wanted.
She doesn’t need to curry favour with us, and the director, who says this book is an important one to her as both a director and a woman, don’t need to make Anne any more sympathetic than being a young woman who goes through a harrowing ordeal when she shouldn’t have had to. So if Anne’s withdrawal from the world, from the people around her makes her seem distant or diffident, it emphasises that however the film is framed and set up to maximise the tension she was going through, like her curtailed pregnancy, the vast majority of her turmoil was internal.
I should also mention that “success” in Anne’s endeavours results in images that would not be out of place in a horror flick, and that potential audiences should definitely be aware going in. For those of us who have either experienced miscarriages or abortions, or our partners, well, some of the stuff that happens towards the end could bring back some very painful memories.
I think it’s a remarkable film with a remarkable performance from the young actor who is onscreen for the entire flick’s length, never less than determined, never less than driven to hold onto the life she demanded to get to live. And she did, which is a credit to the author, the director and the actor. None of this could have been easy, but it was necessary to tell this story, like all these stories.
9 reasons why Happening shouldn’t be confused for The Happening with Mark fucking Wahlberg out of 10
“I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life.” - Happening