It’s 1963, and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is studying literature at a French university, where the faculty are so impressed by her work that they think she has the talent to become a professor. Then, one fine day, she finds herself pregnant. Today she’d have a range of options, as one would expect in a civilized country with universal health care, but in those bad old days she has only two, both potentially disastrous. Choice #1 is to drop out of the university, have the baby, and kiss her academic ambitions goodbye. Choice #2 is to procure an illegal backstreet abortion and hope she ends up neither dead nor in prison.
Welcome to the world of Audrey Diwan’s Happening (original title L’événement, or “The Event”), based on Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographic novel. Ernaux, like Anne, was a working class woman who went to university and became pregnant at a time when abortion was illegal in France. It’s worth noting that while the story in Happening is set almost 60 years ago in France, it could take place this year in the United States, if the recently leaked Supreme Court draft opinion becomes official. In fact, this story has most likely played out in the present day in the United States more than once, given the many restrictions and barriers some states created to defy the spirit of Roe v. Wade.
Rumors fly fast in the dorm where Anne lives, and shaming soon follows. One mean girl suggest she has syphilis, because “loose women catch that stuff,” while another tries to claim the moral high ground and warns that she may be forced to leave. Meanwhile, a male classmate (Kacey Mottet Klein), whom she asks for support, suggests that they have sex because he wants to and she shouldn’t mind—there’s no danger since she’s already pregnant.
Anne herself is not ashamed, but angry: she knows the rules are stacked against her and that the consequences of a single (and entirely normal) act could stunt her life forever. She also quickly learns that while plenty of people are more than ready to pass judgment on her, assistance is much harder to come by. Physicians are singularly unhelpful (one deliberately tricks her), the faculty shame her for diminished academic performance, she’s afraid to tell her mother (Sandrine Bonnaire), and the mere implication of possibly ending the pregnancy puts her friend Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) in a panic.
Vartolmei delivers a remarkable performance, underplaying Anne’s emotional responses in a way that makes them register all the more strongly on the viewer. Diwan uses an on-screen week count to track the progress of the pregnancy, which from Anne’s perspective is the equivalent of a ticking time bomb, but there’s nothing melodramatic about this film—instead, a sparse soundtrack and matter-of-fact camera work let the actors, particularly Vartolmei, do the work. Close framing and use of the Academy ratio emphasize the claustrophobia of Anne’s situation and underline her increasing isolation.
Happening won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and has scooped up several other international awards, including Most Promising Actress (Vartolomei) at the 2022 César Awards and Best Film and Best Actress (Vartolomei) at the 2022 Lumières Awards. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and should get some more nominations (and hopefully some wins) come Oscar season.| Sarah Boslaugh