Review: Set in the 1960s, Happening Is a Starkly Contemporary Story of Reproductive Rights

If everything in the news lately about reproductive rights (and the effort to restrict and remove them) has you feeling despondent and worried, perhaps a screening of Happening, the story of a young woman in 1960s France seeking an abortion, is not exactly the sort of fare you’re looking for at the moment. Then again, it could be exactly what we need in this moment, a stark and unvarnished (yet harrowingly beautiful) exploration of a woman’s journey to take control of her body and what happens with it.

Based on a novel by Annie Erneaux, filmmaker Audrey Diwan (director, as well as co-writer with collaborator Marcia Romano) offers a sophomore feature film that balances the emotional turmoil of young Anne’s (Anamaria Vartolomei) discovery of her unplanned pregnancy during a stressful stretch at university and the almost clinical depiction of the process of terminating a pregnancy. The film is set more than 50 years ago, but its story is nevertheless inarguably contemporary, as women in the United States and around the world continue to fight for the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

Anne is a student at university, living a relatively carefree life with girlfriends and school mates who study together as much as they socialize together; when we meet her, Anne and her friends are on their way to a social mixer where they’ll dance and drink (cokes) and flirt. Each of them is dreaming of a life after graduating, their hard work paying off in lives that are of their own making. When Anne’s is derailed by learning she is pregnant, the film becomes a ticking clock, counting down the weeks as she tries everything she can think of to end the pregnancy before anyone finds out about it. Everything seems stacked against her, as the procedure is illegal in France (it is now legal before 14 weeks) and everyone from her doctor to her roommates refuses to help her lest they end up in jail with her for her “crimes.”

Diwan creates a moody air of desperation as the film progresses, Anne navigating the shadows—both literal and figurative—to find the support she needs; muted colors and limited light imbue the film with a sense of uncertainty, as with each passing week Anne becomes more and more frightened about how all this will play out for her. The film’s two most harrowing (and heartbreaking) scenes are those when Anne finally starts to make progress on her effort to end her pregnancy, first at her own hands and then with the help of an underground provider. Both scenes unflinchingly portray the trauma, fear and tense sense of relief present throughout Anne’s ordeal; where Diwan could’ve easily cut away from both moments and left the worst of these difficult moments off screen, instead she insists we look at them, we confront them and acknowledge both the strength and bravery of the women put in this position and the necessity of ensuring no woman ever has to go through a similar experience again.

Happening is now playing in select theaters.

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Lisa Trifone

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