Despite the obvious appropriateness of Audrey Diwan’s latest film given the ongoing debate around abortion in the United States today, it was originally screened on 6th September 2021 at the Venice International Film Festival. And yet, that’s precisely where the magic of cinema lies. It can be relevant without meaning to be specifically so. I mean, a story about 1960s France where abortions weren’t legal will be generally relevant forever, but now seems like the perfect time to talk about it. Being a period film, Happening presents a good contrast with today’s world and helps understand why the illegalization-of-abortion debate is definitely regressive politics.
Happening or as it is originally titled, L’Evenement follows a literature student in 1963 Paris. She is seemingly more promiscuous than her peers, who all avoid sex because of the possibility of getting pregnant. Abortions were illegal then and no doctors would entertain pleas from girls with unwanted pregnancies. Everyone either avoids sex or else makes the decision to become a housewife. There’s no middle ground. And in that world, our protagonist Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) finds out she’s become pregnant after a sexual encounter with a stranger at a party. Over a runtime of about 100 minutes, Happening covers her struggle with getting help and sticking to her wish to not have the baby.
Yes, that’s the plot. There aren’t any significant subplots. So what, some of you may be asking, would be the point of watching Happening? Well, the intention is to make the story of struggle accessible. There are harrowing scenes, one of them depicting a D.I.Y abortion, especially difficult to see, which helps understand the plight of women in a time when abortions were illegal. Happening focuses on how Anne’s treated by her closest friends, how she has to ensure no one in her family finds out, how her studies suffer and how a doctor even went so far as to knowingly give her wrong medicine. When the only people in a place to help you, will not, who do you turn to?
Anamaria carries the film on her shoulders with a scarring performance. I feel like everyone, irrespective of their stance on the issue of legalizing abortions should see this film. Since Anamaria portrays Anne with a searing honesty that pierces the screen and sows the seeds of discomfort in the viewer’s mind, it’s difficult to dismiss the horrors of living in a world where women aren’t allowed to have abortions. And the fact that technology’s evolution has made the process easier doesn’t really help the argument. Happening does an amazing job of saying this by spending more time on showing Anne’s struggle with hiding her pregnancy and dealing with pregnancy-related physical and biological consequences instead of the actual procedures of underground or black market abortions. Films like Never Rarely Sometimes Always have brought the topic up, but just like Happening, it only reached a small number of viewers. In fact, in that respect, the scene from Dirty Dancing did an amazing job of showing how a woman runs a risk on her life if she isn’t allowed to have an abortion without doing so secretly. Happening though, is a lot more difficult to see because of the camerawork too.
The cinematography involves amazing use of the negative space. Laurent Tangy frames Anamaria asymmetrically in most shots, usually with blank space to the left. Asymmetrical frames with one specific subject almost always create an atmosphere of discomfort, which perfectly works in sync with the content nature of Happening. A lot of scenes in the film are just close-ups of Anne and also of her alone. She’s truly the protagonist of the story. And she’s presented as such. Even in scenes where she’s not at odds with other characters on screen, she’s shown through close-ups while moments of others speaking are depicted through wide-angle shots. And the disconcerting tone of the film comes across because of the abundance of close-ups. There’s an atmosphere of suffocation that looms over the entirety of Happening. And close-up shots anyway seem to offer less space to the subject, so they contribute to this feeling. It makes perfect sense since Anne does feel suffocated by the laws which dictate her life.
As a feminist film, Happening is an essential watch today. The right to have an abortion has been the topic of debate for ridiculously long now. The number of “My body, my rules” declarations by Americans when refusing to wear a mask or take the vaccine during the COVID pandemic, speaks directly to how hypocritical society can be, when there’s growing support for the motion to legally take a woman’s choice away from her, regarding her own body. And this isn’t just America as we know it. Abortions are illegal in many countries as of 2022. I have no idea how it’s still not a basic right at this point, but this says the fight is far from over. So, films like Happening are ever-relevant. This shouldn’t go under the radar. It’s got a lot of artistic merits which I feel like I didn’t talk about, but the fact is, I’m unable to not take a political direction when speaking about such a pressing issue. I hope Audrey Diwan gets the recognition she deserves. And I hope even more that the plight of abortion laws improves and more rapidly than it is improving right now.