Audrey Diwan delivers an affecting, necessary abortion drama
May 3rd, 2022, will be a day that will be long remembered in American history, unjustifiably celebrated by some, justifiably vilified by many, for the leak of a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision by a reactionary, right-wing majority. That decision will be overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that ruled bodily autonomy in general and abortion in particular, a constitutionally protected. For millions of American women, their lives and the lives of everyone around them, will be significantly, maybe permanently altered for the worse. Once finalized and issued, the expected anti-Roe ruling will also mark the first time the Supreme Court, nine non-elected men and women in black robes, will retract a constitutionally protected in American legal history, making the arrival of writer-director Audrey Diwan’s (The Stronghold, The Man With the Iron Heart, The Connection) deeply affecting abortion drama, Happening (L’événement), as timely as it is a necessary reminder of the legal, social, and cultural obstacles women will have to overcome if they need or want an abortion.
An adaptation of French writer Annie Ernaux’s memoir, Happening explores the issue of abortion through the eyes of Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a brilliant university student from a working-class background with a bright academic future who discovers she’s pregnant in 1963 France. With abortion unambiguously illegal, the product of a staunchly Roman Catholic government, Anne, an independent young woman who, fully recognizing what early motherhood would mean for her (i.e., dropping out of school, giving birth, and getting a menial, low-paying job to make ends meet), almost immediately makes the only logical decision in her circumstance, getting an abortion and moving forward with her personal and academic life.
Facing periodic insults from puritanical, reactionary classmates and the baked-in social and religious prejudices of even her best friends, Anne attempts to find help wherever she can find it, from the earnest, well-meaning doctors who, fearing the loss of their licenses and possible criminal charges, attempt to convince her otherwise (one lies, prescribing pregnancy-supporting hormones instead), and when that doesn’t work, risking ostracism (or worse) by sharing both the news of her pregnancy and her decision to terminate it with select friends and acquaintances, hoping with increasing desperation for a lead to an abortion provider. The risks are many, from the potential for discovery by someone unsympathetic to her predicament, to the actual abortion itself (given its illegality and thus, an absence of health and safety protocols).
Diwan’s deliberate decision to adhere to realistic, naturalistic storytelling tropes means, however, that Happening doesn’t have any clear-cut villains or even obvious antagonists. While Anne faces a gauntlet of sorts until an unlikely source connects her to essentially an underground railroad of abortion providers and the women who’ve used them, Diwan takes a methodical, low-key approach, literally following Anne via intrusive, claustrophobic camerawork as the days, weeks, and months tick down. Each day, each week, and each month contributes to a sense of impending doom, a point of no return, and the potentially fatal complications of an illegal abortion. Happening ultimately turns on whether Anne’s abortion, if successful, will be characterized as an abortion or a miscarriage by medical professionals. If the former, criminal prosecution awaits Anne.
By focusing exclusively on Anne, by zeroing in on Anne’s lived experience, Diwan avoids turning Happening into a polemic or treatise, letting Anne and the specifics of her story dictate Happening’s themes, subtext, and connection to audience members. In Diwan’s character-oriented approach, Happening obviously resembles Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but the similarities, while evident, aren’t enough to disqualify Happening as somehow derivative or unoriginal. Between the 1963 French setting, Anne’s daily experiences, and a revelatory, pitch-perfect performance from Anamaria Vartolomei, Happening joins its predecessors as both a testament to its central character’s resilience and women like her as well as an urgent, essential warning of what pre- and post-Roe life will be like for American women.
Happening will be released theatrically by IFC Films on Friday, May 13th.