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OPINION | REVIEW: French abortion film ‘Happening’ takes us back to the future

by Philip Martin | May 13, 2022 at 1:32 a.m.
Bright literature student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is forced to contemplate drastic actions when she finds out she’s pregnant in Audrey Diwan’s plausible horror film “Happening,” based on a semi-autobiographical novella by French writer Annie Ernaux.

Had it arrived a year ago, French director Audrey Diwan's plausible horror film "Happening" -- about a young unmarried woman in 1963 France desperate to obtain an illegal and dangerous abortion -- would have been received as a serious work of art, a period piece reminding us of the dangers of romanticizing the past.

It would have been received similarly to Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" from 2007 or Eliza Hittman's 2020 film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."

Cinephiles would have known about it, and it would have been appreciated, but it would not have been the lead review in this section of the newspaper.

And if the good people publicizing "Firestarter" had been more timely in sending out preview screeners of their product, they might have bumped it to a secondary position, the leaking of a certain draft opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States notwithstanding.

While undoubtedly more people will spend money to see "Firestarter" this weekend, there's no doubt that "Happening" is the more important film.

That's because "Happening" isn't particularly political, at least not in the sense that it proffers a particular agenda. It's a deeply personal episode from a particular life told in a straightforward manner without a lot of moralizing, almost journalistic in its matter-of-factness.

It is based on "L'evenementa" ("The Event") a semi-autobiographical novella -- some call it a memoir -- published by celebrated French writer Anne Ernaux in 2000 about her illegal abortion when she was a student in Rouen.

A year later, an English-language edition was published. I read it and was impressed by her clean precise prose, and remember wondering how accurately translator Tanya Leslie was at rendering the tonality and rhythms of the original French.

Ernaux supplemented her memory work with passages from a journal she kept at the time. It is a genuinely marvelous book; to read it is to wonder at the mixture of courage, self-awareness and performative grit of the bookish protagonist.

In the book, the older Ernaux often breaks in to comment on what she did at the time and how it felt later. This works in print, even as it diminishes the tension -- we know Ernaux survived to write the book. While my memory of the book is imperfect, this seems to be the only major change Diwan and her co-screenwriter Marcia Romano have made in their adaptation. Otherwise the film feels remarkably faithful to the book, right down to the rhythms and pacing.

Anne (French-Romanian Anamaria Vartolomei) is young, but at 23 hardly a child. She is studying literature at a high and serious level, at what would be analogous to graduate school in this country. She lives in a dorm and can present as demure if not somewhat mousy -- certainly less flamboyant than some of her friends, but neither good nor bad. She's intelligent, with ambition, and not ready to be married, not ready to be a mother.

Abortion would not be legal in France until 1975.

Her doctor (the Belgian screenwriter Fabrizio Rongione) minces no words. "The law is unsparing," he says. She, and anyone who helps her, might face prison if she obtains an abortion. And the procedure isn't safe -- every month women die agonizing deaths.

Maybe she won't take the baby to term, she muses. Maybe she'll miscarry. The doctor coolly assesses her and says nothing. He can do nothing for her. She should accept that.

But she can't, so like millions of other women before and since, she sets out to handle it herself.

She has no real idea where to turn, and friends don't offer much in the way of female solidarity. It's like it's a game, and whatever takes Anne out of it accrues to their advantage.

Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy make use of a squarish aspect ratio that is both reminiscent of films of the period -- especially films of the French New Wave -- and suggests the boxed-in quality of Anne's predicament. As onscreen titles mark the advance of her pregnancy, she becomes increasingly desperate and inverted. Men attempt to exploit her, women smugly judge her.

Vartolomei has a way of conveying quiet desperation without trembling, a way of letting terror creep softly into her intelligent eyes. Her schoolwork suffers; she stays still and hushed and intense, with an animal alertness to the ticking of the clock. She visits her parents; she tells no one anything.

"One Monday I came back from [my parents'] place with a pair of knitting needles which I had bought one summer with the intention of making myself a cardigan," Ernaux writes in her novella. "Two long, shiny blue needles."


  photo  Actor Anamaria Vartolomei poses for a portrait to promote the film "Happening" on Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
  photo  Director Audrey Diwan poses for a portrait to promote the film "Happening" on Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)


90 Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luana Bajrami, Louise Orry-Diquero, Louise Chevillotte, Pio Marmai, Sandrine Bonnaire, Anna Mouglalis, Leonor Oberson, Fabrizio Rongione

Director: Audrey Diwan

Rating: R

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

In French with English subtitles

Playing theatrically


  photo  Provincial workingclass girl Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is comforted by her mother, Gabrielle (Sandrine Bonnaire), when she comes home from her university for a brief visit in Audrey Diwan’s “Happening.”

Print Headline: ‘Happening’ here


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