DIRECTOR: Audrey Diwan

CAST: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Sandrine Bonnaire, Louise Orry-Diquero, Louise Chevillotte, Pio Marmaï, Anna Mouglalis, Fabrizio Rongione, Luàna Bajrami, Leonor Oberson, Julien Frison, Alice de Lencquesaing

RUNNING TIME: 100 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: In 1963 France, a young student (Vartolomei) resorts to illegal measures to take care of her unexpected pregnancy…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Despite already having won the coveted Golden Lion award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, it was still a shock to many to see Audrey Diwan’s name announced as a nominee in this year’s Best Director category at the BAFTAs, alongside more prolific names like Paul Thomas Anderson, Julia Ducournau, and eventual winner Jane Campion. However, the film which the French director was nominated for, the quietly terrifying historical drama Happening, makes the case for her candidacy by being a very well-made interpretation of a story that might as well have been ripped from today’s headlines.

Set in 1963, the film follows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a young literature student who receives the shocking news that she’s fallen pregnant after a brief fling, but not wanting to give up her studies or her adventurous life decides that she does not want to keep it. There’s just one small problem, though: abortion is very much illegal, and nobody wants to even have the discussion about it with her, lest they too want to end up in prison for being complicit in what is seen at this time as unacceptable in the eyes of the law. This does not deter Anne, though, who takes it upon herself to find a solution to her quickly-growing problem, even if it means running the risk of being sent to prison for her actions.

Diwan’s film, which she also co-wrote with Anne Berest and Marcia Romano, is based on an autobiographical novel by French author Annie Ernaux, in which she explains in full and often horrifying detail the lengths she was forced to go in order to abort her unwanted pregnancy. The adaptation that Diwan, Berest and Romano mine from the source material does well to highlight the rather disturbing obstacles that Ernaux – represented here by the lead character Anne – and indeed any other woman in the same situation are all met with at this point in history. The society that Anne lives in is patriarchal to the extreme, from the various guys who eye her and her friends up during their nights out, to the sneering male tutor who stares down a storm when confronting her about failing grades. Her doctors, most crucially in this situation, are all male, and are the ones telling her to accept the fact that she has no choice in the matter and must raise this baby whom she has absolutely no desire to care for. Even some of her female friends, raised amongst the sexualised gaze of male peers (one of them is very openly sexual despite remaining a virgin, and models herself after some of the unrealistic pornographic material she has been exposed to), refuse to side with Anne during her mission because they too believe it is a woman’s role to raise whatever grows inside their uteruses, without question. Diwan’s tightly focused direction makes it unnerving to see these types of attitudes play out, even within a historical context, because at the end of the day Anne is a character with a very serious situation, and yet nobody will help her not just because it’s against the law, but because it’s against the biased and misogynist system that they’re so unconsciously, even frighteningly, a blissful part of.

You can feel the growing frustration that Anne – played excellently by Anamaria Vartolomei – is forced to experience as she keeps getting stonewalled left and right, eventually resorting to methods that are painful to watch as they surely are to experience. Whatever your views on abortion may be, it is not a fun process for any woman, and throughout Happening you see just how disturbing some of these practices could be before it eventually became legalised, in scenes that could almost pass for body horror given the way that certain sequences are shot, edited and performed (one climactic scene in particular almost rivals Titane in disturbing fetal imagery). It never feels exploitative, though, for Diwan has such a firm control over the camera that she has the ability to make you feel real compassion for the situation that her main character has been forced into, and although some of her points tend to come across a little one-sided – after one conservative character expresses their disapproval for Anne’s intentions, they are simply gone from the rest of the movie – there is enough of a balance to kickstart a formal discussion on the tricky subject matter.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, no matter what side of the issue you may fall on, Happening is an impressively made and effective drama that highlights an important topic, and makes a profound case for how dangerous it can be for something like abortion to be made illegal – and given certain news stories currently making the rounds, it’s something that needs to be addressed and protected sooner rather than later.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Happening is an effective and occasionally terrifying drama that highlights the patriarchal society of 1960s France that prevented women from having much control of their bodies, including the central topic of abortion which is depicted in tense and even disturbing fashion through impressive direction by Audrey Diwan, who does not shy away from its grislier moments.

Happening will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 22nd April 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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