Film Review – Happening (2021) – 10/06/2022

Dir. Audrey Diwan, producers. Rectangle Productions, France 3 Cinéma, SRAB Films, distributor. Wild Bunch. Link to trailer:

In its original French title, this film is called L’événement. ‘The Event’ in question is the pregnancy and subsequent abortion of Anne, a talented student and aspiring writer in 1963 France. It is a piece of cinema at once powerful and excruciating. And though it may be a cliché of the adoring film critic, it is also timely and necessary.

The film is an adaptation of a short, harrowing memoir by French author Annie Ernaux (b. 1940). It is an account of the desperate and dangerous underground abortion Ernaux underwent in her early twenties, when the procedure remained illegal in France. Anamaria Vartolomei gives a performance of astonishing, nuanced complexity as Anne (a fictionalised Ernaux). A top student, her parents, teachers and peers expect her to excel in upcoming university entrance examinations. But when she becomes pregnant, she finds that few friends remain loyal, and she must fight a covert, solo battle for her future.

Director Audrey Diwan makes effective use of long takes over her lead’s shoulder. We follow Anne as she dances and flirts, and the camera sways, as if we are another warm body in the crowd. Anne’s high school, and the French countryside to which she returns when visiting her proud parents, is striking in its rich, textured vividness.

But what Diwan’s camera loves most is Vartolomei’s face. As the narrative progresses, from the discovery of pregnancy to Anne’s increasingly frantic attempts to find help, to the agonising conclusion, one cannot help but be transfixed by Vartolomei’s expressions. We see it all. Her anguish, ambition, humiliation, daring and pain. The rest of the cast are faultless, but this is the lead’s film, and she is spectacular.

Anne is determined that pregnancy will not stop her from pursuing her literary talents. Her love of writing is reflected in the film’s title, drawn from a quote by Michel Leiris:

‘I wish for two things: that happening turn to writing. And that writing be happening.’

Annie Ernaux survived her abortion, and fulfilled her talent as an author. Many young women did not, because safe abortions were not available to them. Happening does not force a political message upon its audience. It is far too delicate and nuanced for that. Nonetheless, it makes its point.

A short version of this article is available in the latest print edition – Summer 2022 – of the Oxford Review of Books.

Annie Ernaux’s original text (2001), published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and a mere 77 pages long. If you get the chance, read it.

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