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Timely and urgent, 'Happening' is a film that speaks to today's abortion debate

Anamaria Vartolomei stars as a literature student who discovers she's pregnant after a brief fling in <em>Happening.</em>
Wild Bunch
Anamaria Vartolomei stars as a literature student who discovers she's pregnant after a brief fling in Happening.

It would be hard to overstate the timeliness of the new abortion-themed drama Happening. Then again, this harrowing movie, directed with great tension and intimacy by the French filmmaker Audrey Diwan, would feel timely and urgent under any circumstances. Based on an autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, it unfolds over several weeks in the life of Anne, a 23-year-old literature student in the French town of Angoulême, who discovers she's pregnant after a brief fling.

It's 1963, and most working-class women in Anne's position would be forced to drop out of school, give up their careers and/or get married. But Anne doesn't want to do any of those things. She wants to continue her studies, and so she decides to seek out an abortion, even though the procedure is illegal.

Anne is played by the superb French-Romanian actor Anamaria Vartolomei, whose piercing blue eyes register her character's mounting desperation. But behind that terror, she also shows us Anne's quiet determination. "I'll manage," Anne tends to say whenever she encounters a setback, which is often.

The father in question doesn't care what she does about the pregnancy, so long as it doesn't involve him. Anne sees two male doctors; the first is sympathetic to her situation but unable to help. The second prescribes her shots that he says will start her period; she later finds out he lied and the drugs have actually strengthened the embryo.

Anne turns to some of her school friends for help, but they give her the cold shoulder. A male classmate makes a pass at her, figuring that, since she's already pregnant, she might as well throw caution to the wind. Happening is especially perceptive in portraying the social stigma of being a sexually active woman in the early '60s. Anne's friends think and talk about sex constantly, while remaining extremely judgmental of anyone who actually has sex. In one uncomfortable scene, Anne is harassed in the dorm showers by a classmate who accuses her of being "a loose woman" and spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Many of these details come directly from Ernaux's memoir (also called Happening), and Diwan and her co-writer, Marcia Romano, bring us deep inside Anne's experience. We are with her at every step as her body begins to change and her academics and relationships begin to suffer. The movie becomes a clock-ticking thriller, with regular on-screen reminders of how many weeks she is into her pregnancy. The camera follows Anne in long, uninterrupted tracking shots that create a remarkable level of tension. That tension kicks into overdrive when Anne takes matters into her own hands, first by attempting the abortion herself, and then by turning to the black market. These scenes are not for the faint of heart, but as graphic as they are, they never feel exploitative.

Happening joins a strong field of abortion-themed movies including the 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the more recent Never Rarely Sometimes Always. In each of these movies we see a young woman struggling to deal with an impossible situation, whether in communist Romania or present-day Manhattan. Happening itself sometimes feels ambiguous in terms of its setting; you can tell the era from the actors' clothes and the pay phones, but Diwan doesn't overdo the '60s trappings. It's as if she's saying this re-creation of the past might very well be a window into the future.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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