Beautifully Painful: “Happening”
In an honest depiction of a young woman’s struggle to get an abortion in a time when it was illegal, the desperation, fear, and isolation she feels are brought front and center.
Reading Time: 3 minutes
In the newly released film “Happening,” director Audrey Diwan explores themes of secrecy, friendship, and cultural attitudes toward sexuality. Initially released in 2021 in France, “Happening” hit theaters in the United States on May 6, coinciding almost exactly with the leak of Supreme Court documents advocating the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Based on the book by Annie Ernaux, “Happening” follows Anne, a young student who is attending college in 1963 when she learns that she is pregnant. Set in a time and place where abortion is illegal and any expression of sexuality is frowned upon, Anne struggles to navigate this challenge while simultaneously balancing her social and academic lives.
The film opens with Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) and her friends, who maintain normal lives as college students through partying, dancing, and attending class. Though the three girls seem like picture-perfect members of society, this illusion is broken as soon as Anne finds out that she is pregnant. A death sentence to her, she immediately consults her doctors, though she never explicitly asks for what she wants: an abortion. France’s social and political climate of the time sets the stage for the film’s main conflict as Anne is scolded by her doctor for even mentioning abortion, leading her to resort to illegal alternatives. The film follows Anne as she searches for a way to terminate her pregnancy at the expense of her friendships and academics.
While the story is compelling on its own, the film also does extremely well in portraying Anne’s feelings of desperation and loneliness through both pacing and cinematography. Time seems to move slowly in the film, emulating the realism and routine of everyday life. The director beautifully accomplishes this leisurely pace by depicting the mundane parts of life, which, when accompanied by Anne’s struggle, convey the all-consuming nature of her pregnancy and the desperation of her situation to the viewer. Whether she is eating lunch with her friends or showering in the communal university showers, there is always a lingering sense of fear that someone might discover Anne’s secret. Anne’s desperation is further emphasized by the inclusion of weekly timestamps that measure how far along Anne is in her pregnancy, which lend the film a sense of urgency. The filmmakers effectively use the film’s short runtime to depict a full, in-depth picture of Anne’s experience in those grueling 10 weeks of her life. Even though the film only gives the audience a quick snapshot into Anne’s life, it satisfies nonetheless.
In tandem with the pacing, the director and cinematographer’s choice of camera angles make the film feel very personal, as the audience is forced to watch Anne’s emotions in extreme close-ups, in a way such that they feel them with her. These shots do not shy away from capturing the extremely uncomfortable nature of the film either. While watching Anne grow increasingly isolated is painful, it does not compare to scenes of her in excruciating pain and agony as she repeatedly attempts to abort her pregnancy. Shots of Anne in anguish, and close-ups of her ill, sweating face as she drifts in and out of consciousness after her final attempt at an illegal abortion give way to a communal sense of pain and desperation. Though it is difficult to watch Anne suffer, these scenes only add to the appeal of the film. As uncomfortable as they are, they demand that the viewer understand and feel the fear, danger, and pain caused by her inability to access safe medical care. These scenes are necessary to the message of the film and make it even more impactful and compelling.
Though “Happening” is a period piece, it is simultaneously contemporary. It is clear that the film does not take place in the modern day: the girls’ retro style, the vintage, coastal look of Anne’s house, and the booming rock ‘n roll played in the college bar bring the film back to the mid-century and create a dreamy, nostalgic world that juxtaposes the subject matter of the film. While “Happening” portrays its setting well, the film still feels uncannily modern. As the release of the film in the United States almost directly coincided with the leak of a Supreme Court draft that implied plans to overturn Roe v. Wade, the themes discussed in the film feel especially timely now. And while the issue of abortion has become inherently politicized, the director of the film has emphasized that it is not her objective to push her audience in any one direction, but simply to vividly show what illegal abortions once looked like and could look like once again.
In a time when the future of the United States is unforeseeable, “Happening” holds a relevant message. Retrospective and current, the film brings Anne’s struggle for an abortion into focus, and expands outward, critiquing Anne’s world. Through skillful cinematography and an excellent adaptation of a story, the film brings this unsettling yet realistic story to life. “Happening” is beautiful in its portrayal of the ugly parts of Anne’s experience, and it is excellent for that: it is a film that does not shy away from the painful parts of life.