In 'Happening,' to Suffer is to Empathize
On May 2, 2022, someone leaked a draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito regarding the future of Roe V. Wade. The historical precedent which protected women’s fundamental right to choose was planning to be overturned – an outcome that all recent Justice appointees promised would never happen. Four days later, Audrey Diwan’s film about a young woman seeking an illegal abortion in 1960s France was released in U.S. theaters. Perhaps it’s self-important to use a Golden Lion-winning French film to contextualize the failures of America, but it’s nearly impossible to view L'événement (translated to English as Happening) without wondering why stories from the past have little to no impact on the decisions of our present, and why we’d allow a painful history to repeat itself in the future.
Happening is a holistically unnerving film. The 1.37:1 aspect ratio not only gives an aged feel but a claustrophobic one as well. Strings pluck and drums beat as our protagonist tiptoes through dark hallways, strategically hiding her pregnancy. Scenes of visual agony and deafening screams play without a single cut. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Happening is heavily influenced by horror films, though the monsters here are doctors and peers rather than beasts and ghosts.
Anne Duschene (Anamaria Vartolomei) is haunted by the being inside of her, one that she did not want nor did not ask for. The choice to stay pregnant is a choice made by everyone but herself. Doctors, at best, impart their empathy but explain there’s nothing they can do. At worst, they knowingly lie to ensure that Anne remains pregnant. What’s truly horrifying is when Anna does eventually confide in others, she’s met with shame, jeers, or even assault. Happening presents a world where Anna’s pregnancy is a problem that she has to solve completely on her own.
Happening isn’t just a horror film masquerading as a drama, it’s also a commentary on the hypocritical discourse around sexuality. Men criticize women for not being a virgin in the same breath as bragging about how many women they “know.” Anne’s friend Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) tells a story about watching pornography when she was ten years old and then pleasures herself in front of her friends, only to rebuke Anne after learning that she’s pregnant. For these women, the desire and even the act of sex are acceptable if not a little taboo, but the consequence of sex is what’s seemingly unforgivable. Every character in Happening makes a choice in response to Anna’s pregnancy, but the irony lies in the fact that Anna’s choice is the hardest to make actionable. Anna’s friends can simply ignore her, but she has to jump through endless hoops to even talk to someone who doesn’t think she’s a witch for wanting an abortion.
The film is undoubtedly a masterclass in craft, so I was shocked to learn this is only the second feature that Diwan has directed. From the use of the near-carré aspect ratio to the masterful sound design to the impeccable direction of performances, Happening feels like it’s helmed by someone who has directed for decades. It’s been meticulously constructed to insert the audience not only into Anna’s world but directly into her POV. Of course, much of the success of Happening is owed to Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance. The film is as much about Anna as it is about the obstructive society around her, and Vartolomei’s quiet take on Anna makes the film that much more effective.
I can’t imagine there’s a film that gives a more visceral and honest telling of unwanted pregnancy and abortion than Happening. When my screening ended, I had to walk around the mall for a half-hour to soak in everything I just witnessed. Happening is a difficult watch. No, it’s an excruciating watch. Not just because of what’s on the screen, but because this is the reality for so many people across the world, and it could become the reality in the US very soon. Happening is a perfect example of what filmmaking can achieve – it shares an uncommon perspective to challenge the viewers' assumptions. The only issue is that the people who need to watch it never will.