For many, the leaked U.S. Supreme Court opinion that foretells the end of Roe v. Wade is a life-shattering revelation. However, for those living in states where abortion access has been gradually limited, this proposed rescinding of the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision has seemed all but inevitable. Heartbeat bills, enforced parental consent, insurance restrictions and mandatory waiting periods have already been enforced in most “red” states. If Roe is indeed overturned, nearly 20 of these same states would almost certainly (and immediately) ban abortion outright. Though several American films have already chronicled the difficulty and stigma that surrounds legal abortion access—including Palindromes, Obvious Child, If These Walls Could Talk, Citizen Ruth, The Abortion Diaries, Never Rarely Sometimes Always—Audrey Diwan’s ‘60s-set French abortion drama Happening feels terribly, eerily prescient on the heels of this tragic setback. Racked with emotional tension and visceral turmoil, it paints a painful portrait of how women have suffered—and will, sadly, continue to suffer—for the ability to make their own precious choices.
Based on the 2000 novel/memoir hybrid of the same name by Annie Ernaux, Happening is a claustrophobic recount of one woman’s dogged quest for an illegal abortion in order to pursue her academic studies. Taking place in 1963’s post-war France, the practice was heavily criminalized—meaning that Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) risks up to 20 years in prison if she’s caught by authorities. As such, she’s discrete yet determined in her search for a provider. She visits an OBGYN, puts feelers out on campus and even resorts to unsafe, intrusive amateur procedures. Unfortunately, nothing seems successfully induce miscarriage. As her desperation mounts and options begin to fade, the audience is given consistent reminders of just how much time has passed. The burdensome news is first broken to Anne by her physician when she’s three weeks pregnant. The weeks continue to pass; the burgeoning life within her fails to dim with each attempted abortion. The stress of this unwanted pregnancy begins to affect Anne’s previously rich personal life. Her academic performance suffers terribly, she grows distant from her working class family, and she finds herself ostracized by her friends for her supposedly “loose” tendencies. As time slips by without procuring an abortion, so do the best facets of Anne’s life pre-pregnancy.
Vartolomei’s performance is rousing, managing to evoke the gnawing sensation of prolonged anxiety through a permanent pursed lip and furrowed brow. While her actions are initially subtle so as not to reveal the truth behind her turmoil, her demeanor begins to crack over time, revealing a hostility toward those around her that can’t—or flat-out won’t—help her plight. However, she also encounters a solidarity of sisterhood that sustains her through the ordeal. These connections are ultimately fleeting—merely relaying information or performing clandestine services—yet they provide more comfort and aid to Anne than any of her previously established relationships. Their mutual understanding of the frenzied panic and looming threat of social ostracization makes for a seamless camaraderie—even if the threat of imprisonment means that these relations must remain untraceable and impermanent.
In fact, the word “abortion” is never uttered by anyone in the film. Anne repeatedly says that she’s “not keeping it,” but never explicitly states that she’s seeking the then-illicit procedure. Again, this detail only adds to the period-accurate reality of Happening. To bluntly address the existence of abortions—whether mentioned by secret providers or the women who sought them out—meant jeopardizing one’s newfound fetus-free independence with extended jail time. This doesn’t mean that the film shies away from the bloody viscera inherent to these desperate efforts to abort. In withholding the use of the term outright, the film instead focuses on the painful, illegitimate nature of terminating a pregnancy outside of the sterile safety of the medical system. Knitting needles, intra-uterine implants and hushed yelps responding to cervical penetration reveal the dangerous nature of this hushed practice—and demonstrate just how intent women like Anne have been in ensuring they remain in control of their own bodies. “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life,” she quips to her family physician.
Though the power of feminist solidarity is palpable, Happening also highlights the snide inconsideration of the men in Anne’s life. They are nothing more than bumbling, cruel obstacles for her to overcome: Demanding literature professors, clueless predators, uninvolved prospective fathers. Yet the film is careful not to become a cliche anti-sex manifesto, detailing the horrors of “back-alley” abortions in order to evoke celibate leg-crossing. Anne never expresses guilt for having enjoyed sex, even if her closest confidants abandon her for what’s labeled as tasteless promiscuity. There is simply no time for self-flagellating over her own unchangeable actions.
Happening portrays a bleak future through the scars of one woman’s past. Futile needle pricks, scratched uterine linings, scissor-severed flesh—these wounds remain fresh and bloody, ready to impart themselves on a new generation born of the same desperation. While Diwan may not have intended for her film to possess such a weighted relevance—after all, it’s set in a comparatively “dark age” for French feminism—American viewers will sweat and suffer through this unfortunate, unintentionally forward-looking tableau. Though this fact has been infinitely reiterated during conversations surrounding abortion access, it merits repeating: Banning abortions will never stop people from seeking them out. Individuals will always pursue their right to bodily autonomy, whether or not the state recognizes it as an immutable personal liberty. What banning abortions will achieve, however, is immense suffering for those who find themselves saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. In watching Anne’s story unfold, encountering setback after agonizing setback, one thing remains terribly clear: If necessary, many of us would risk our lives to do exactly the same. Does this desire to choose our own trajectory merit punishment this severe? Clearly, the Supreme Court and post-war France remain on the same antiquated page.
Director: Audrey Diwan
Writers: Audrey Diwan, Marcia Romano, Anne Berest
Stars: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Sandrine Bonnaire, Luàna Bajrami, Pio Marmaï, Anna Mouglalis
Release Date: May 6, 2022 (IFC Midnight)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan