“I’d like a child one day. But not instead of a life.”
It’s impossible to know for sure how “objective” one can be when evaluating a film depicting such a deeply personal, urgent story with immediate import to real life events. I am certain that detractors of Happening will accuse Bong Joon-ho’s jury of making a “political statement” outside of artistic merit when they awarded it the Golden Lion over more hyped titles like The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter, and Spencer at the 78th Venice Film Festival last year. None of us are automatons with perfect movie-evaluating algorithms to watch new releases under; we are as shaped by the socio-political forces that create our cultural phenomena as truly great artistry shapes the films that stand the test of time. I can only measure a new release’s worth by its impact on me, and how it achieved that outcome. By those standards, Happening is a worthy Golden Lion winner and another essential perspective at what millions of women will potentially face in at least thirteen states here in the very near future.
Its claim to authenticity is an earned one – not only is it based off of legendary author Annie Ernaux’s memoir detailing her efforts to obtain an abortion in 1963, when the procedure was still illegal in France, but also writer/director Audrey Diwan has been open in interviews that she sought out this memoir after obtaining an abortion of her own. This lived experience from a younger storyteller depicting an event that occurred before she was born lends a “timeless” feel to what unfolds over the course of just over 100 minutes. There aren’t ostentatious signifiers of the 60’s here aside from the lack of any smartphones and the vintage quality of the background automobiles. The main thrust of the story would be mostly identical if it took place ten, twenty, or even fifty years later… if France didn’t finally come to its senses and reverse its abortion ban in 1975, of course.
But in the setting of our protagonist Anne (played by Anamaria Vartolomei), she can’t even get a doctor to so much as whisper the word “abortion.” Her friends refuse to help her find someone, fearing that even suggesting a name would land them in prison as well. She doesn’t confide in her mother, and we don’t even learn the identity of the father for quite some time. Unlike Gabita in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (a movie I wrote about earlier this month that this one can’t help but invite comparison to), Anne is mostly alone in her weeks-long quest to terminate this pregnancy that she at no point ever even considers going through with.
This is, in fact, what distinguishes this film from similar abortion dramas that won big at their festival debuts Vera Drake, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Whereas those movies ultimately highlighted necessity of friendships and supportive networks in those situations, Happening doubles down on an unbearable a sense of isolation throughout a much longer span of time (marked by how many weeks she’s into her pregnancy, counting down like a ticking time bomb). Cinematographer Laurent Tangy shoots in a tight 1.37:1 aspect ratio that matches Anne’s limited options, but more insightful is how Anne’s interactions are written with the subtle judgments, microaggressions, and policing of her actions and choices from other women. I earlier mentioned the lack of real communication with her mother, but there are reveals about the sex lives of her friends (played by Luàna Bajrami and Louise Orry-Diquéro) that only make sense as “reveals” if these supposedly close, longtime friends have been deliberately hiding these parts of themselves from each other (including a very bizarre scene that I found hard to “buy,” though I am more than willing to be set straight on this by women in the comments). Much of our pop culture and, let’s be honest, pop politics have been weirdly romantic about the allies that will definitely totally step up in the face of regressive patriarchal laws, but Happening reminds us that in these situations, there will be just as many others who will – some more reluctantly than others – be complicit in perpetuating the actual goal of these laws: to punish, shame, and limit women.
These sobering character moments are punctuated with viscerally upsetting scenes attempting this abortion with limited resources that walk right up to the line of pure body horror. The film also expands the negative effects of her unwanted pregnancy to her schoolwork, her familial relationships, and her financial security. There is a full spectrum of costs inflicted on Anne that the film intersects and compounds on her, resulting in a deeply harrowing experience that I couldn’t take my eyes off of even as I also prayed for the next gauntlet of pain and indignity to finally be her last.
So did we “need” a movie like Happening, among the other just-as-acclaimed and tough-to-watch abortion dramas that have been released over the last twenty years? I would say yes, even as I admit 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days will always be the more significant experience to me personally. Not only because of its unique interpersonal insights, but it also centers a deeply committed lead performance from Vartolomei. Without the book’s first-person narration, or, really, much expository dialogue at all to aid in our understanding of her state of mind, it falls to Vartolomei to communicate the single-minded intensity of Anne’s convictions even in the face of near-helplessness, and she delivers handily. As horrified as I often was by the brutal lengths Anne’s goes through, I never questioned Vartolomei’s foregrounding of the kind of proactive mindset that would willingly give the next available option a shot no matter how painful or risky.
Happening did not change my mind or radically alter my perspective on this issue, but that’s more a function of my age than anything this film could control. I truly hope there is at least one young man out there, as stupid a fence-sitter as I was at 19 when it came to women’s autonomy, who watch this movie and becomes radicalized the same way 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days radicalized me at that age.