Well, looky here. Just a week after that Supreme Court opinion leaked signaling the end of constitutional rights to abortion in America, here comes Happening, a French film about a girl trying to have an abortion, set in an era when that was a crime carrying serious prison time. The movie’s release wasn’t timed to current events, of course, but look around at our circumstances as the film opens at AMC Parks at Arlington. If you want to be on the bleeding edge of an important national debate, that’s where you should be.
The film is based on Annie Ernaux’s 2000 novel L’Événement. Much like Ernaux herself, the protagonist (Anamaria Vartolomei) is born Annie Duchesne in 1940 to a working-class family. In 1963, she’s an accomplished literature student in the city of Angoulême when her doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) informs her that she’s pregnant. She tells the doctor that she wants to continue her academic studies rather than have a child, to which he replies that she has no choice. A second doctor (François Loriquet) swindles her out of 20 francs with a quack cure. Her best friends (Louise Orry-Diquéro and Luàna Bajrami) refuse to help her. The baby’s father (Julien Frison), a poli-sci student from Bordeaux, cares more about his reputation than her. And one fellow student (Kacey Mottet Klein) reacts to her plea for help by trying to seduce her: “There’s no risk if you’re already pregnant.” Even so, he turns out to be of more use than anybody in her life.
I have not seen Audrey Diwan’s one previous feature, which is called Losing It. The filmmaker of Lebanese extraction cuts this film ruthlessly, with its 99-minute running time divided into chapters telling us how far along Annie’s pregnancy is. There is copious nudity in the film, and it’s mostly clinical, as Diwan gives us an unsparing look at what Annie puts her body through to abort the fetus. In a scene worthy of a David Cronenberg horror film, she sticks a knitting needle up her vagina to try to induce a miscarriage. A similar spirit infuses the single-take climactic sequence, when Annie has the procedure done by an old lady (Anna Mouglalis) in a dingy apartment. It’s graphic in the extreme, and I find it all necessary. Diwan is presenting this to us like, “You want to outlaw abortion? Here’s what that means. Take a gander.”
Vartolomei, a Romanian-born actress who has been acting in France since childhood, helps the proceedings immensely by projecting an air of helplessness while Annie coldly tells everyone the same line: “I’ll manage.” Her tremulous performance prevents the movie from turning into a position paper. I have seen three great movies about abortion: Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This film is in that same league. Happening is an introduction to an intriguing new director, but as the abortion debate consumes our nation once again, it’s also much more than that.