Happening is a gripping film about the realities of abortion in the 1960s

Audrey Diwan adapts Annie Ernaux’s deeply personal book about the experience of falling pregnant in France, 1963, before the legalisation of abortion.

21 April 2022

By Catherine Wheatley

Sandrine Bonnaire and Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening (2021) Sandrine Bonnaire and Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening (2021)
Sight and Sound

Happening is in UK cinemas from April 22. 

Annie Ernaux is known in her native France for her auto-fictional novels, which recount, in precise, detached detail, various moments of her life from her birth in 1940 to the onset of her mother’s dementia, when Ernaux was in her late 60s. As they trace Ernaux’s journey from working-class girl in rural France to darling of the literary scene, the books also paint a portrait of Gallic politics and social mores. But none of these works would exist were it not for the abortion Ernaux underwent as a university student, which saved her from what she calls “that illness that turns French women into housewives”. Audrey Diwan’s Happening adapts Ernaux’s account of that event into a lean, muscular film, which hews close to both spirit and letter of the source material while remaining resolutely cinematic in its retelling.

Happening’s action takes place over nine weeks, from the day the protagonist (Anne to her cerebral university friends, Annie to her bartending parents) realises that her period is late to the moment she is wheeled into hospital, barely alive. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) knows that having a baby at this time would mean the end of her academic career and the chance of literal and metaphorical mobility that entails. Little matter that the risks of abortion range from serious physical harm to death and perhaps, even worse in the eyes of Anne and her peers, prison. As she tells a sympathetic but ineffective doctor (Fabrizio Rongione), “I’d like to have a child one day, but not instead of a life.”

Even helping Anne in her quest could result in a lengthy spell inside. Anne shares everything with her two best friends Héléne and Brigitte: they hoist up each others’ bras, pop used chewing gum into one another’s mouths, and even swap masturbation techniques. In one of the few changes to Ernaux’s book, Diwan shifts the season from winter to spring, bathing the university campus in dappled light and casting a hazy glow over the jeunes filles en fleur. One mention of the A-word, though, and they close ranks. “It’s not our business,” Brigitte sniffs.

Single-minded and somewhat aloof even before the stakes are raised, in her predicament Anne finds her isolation is absolute. Diwan has director of photography Laurent Tangy shoot in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, cleaving to Vartolomei as she searches furiously for a solution to her difficulties. Both character and camera are dogged, the latter hovering at Anne’s shoulder or scrutinising her face so closely one can almost feel her panting breath.

Vartolomei is deadpan, but her eyes dart furiously from side to side as if scanning for an exit. The tight focus eloquently translates Ernaux’s matter-of-fact prose and her unique combination of subjectivity and detachment. At the same time, it confines history to the corners of the screen, to snatched references to Sartre and Camus, briefly glimpsed chamber pots and soapboxes.

The historical moment – poised between the conservative 1950s and the freethinking 70s – is of course determinative. The spectre of the Resistance looms: the women who help Anne are a new army of shadows, operating under cover of darkness, with code words and covert assignations. Yet there is a timelessness to Anne’s ordeal. One unusual distance shot (from Anne’s point of view) of Anna Mouglalis’s gravel-voiced abortionist, poised at work between Anne’s open legs, grave in her task, has a painterliness that recalls Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in which a character undergoes a similarly risky procedure.

Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening (2021)
Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening (2021)
© Courtesy of Wild Bunch

If the boxed-in aesthetic calls to mind László Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015, shot in 1.33:1 ratio), that’s no coincidence. Happening is a war film. Not in the sense that it’s a polemic (in interview, Diwan has been firm that her decision to film Ernaux’s novel now is no comment on contemporary debates about abortion laws) but in the same way that the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999) is a war film. Both immerse us in a young woman’s panicked, urgent battle against the strictures of class and patriarchy, written on the female body.

This film’s two scenes of abortion – nothing shown but the clenching, writhing and shuddering of Anne’s body – are almost unbearable. The final, bloody miscarriage, announced with a sudden, stupefying ‘plop’ and a whip-tilt, is the stuff of horror films. None of this is gratuitous. Happening is a gripping, intense film, which proceeds with the same grim determination as its unsmiling heroine.

A womb of one’s own: a short history of abortion on film

A tenderly handled subplot in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire reminds us how rarely the termination of a pregnancy features in cinema, and how such stories tend to turn out, writes Violet Lucca.

By Violet Lucca

A womb of one’s own: a short history of abortion on film

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Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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