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film review

Happening tells the story of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a talented young woman in 1963 France who must choose whether or not to abort a pregnancy in order to finish her studies and escape the social constraints of a working-class family.Courtesy of TIFF

Happening

Directed by Audrey Diwan

Written by Marcia Romano and Audrey Diwan, based on the novel by Annie Ernaux

Starring Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein and Sandrine Bonnaire

Classification N/A; 100 minutes

Opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox May 13; also available on demand


Critic’s Pick


On May 2, Politico leaked a draft decision by the United States Supreme Court that showed it was set to overturn Roe v. Wade. The landmark Roe ruling, decided by the court in 1973, offered federal protection for women’s right to have an abortion. Anti-abortion activists and right-wing politicians have been gunning to overturn Roe for decades – and it appears that moment has arrived. The decision on whether to allow abortion would be left to individual states, and many governors are already preparing legislation that will ban all access if the decision is actually handed down. This will leave millions of women – mostly poor, racialized women – with little recourse in the event of an unwanted pregnancy.

It’s under this weighty political umbrella that Happening comes out, a new French film set in the 1960s that looks at the anxiety, angst and horror of a pregnant teen girl running out of options.

Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a gifted student, studying literature and hoping for a career in the field – anything to leave behind the fate of most women in her middle-class town, who end up working in a factory or farm.

She’s excelling until she finds out at a doctor’s visit that she’s pregnant. It’s a tense moment, made only worse by Anne’s immediate discovery that she suddenly has few choices. The law in France at the time is strict, so much so that when Anne mentions not wanting to keep it, her doctor tells her that not only can she end up in jail, but so can anyone who helps her get an abortion. He also warns of the consequences of illegally procured abortions, of bleeding out in back alleys alone.

Increasingly isolated in her journey to find help, Anne discovers she is entirely alone in her mission to seek out an abortion, unable to turn to classmates or even friends. As her close friend Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) tells her, pregnancy would be “the end of the world.” Even the mention of abortion is verboten, as Brigitte cautions Anne not to even speak of it “even as a joke.”

Audrey Diwan’s Happening is an adaptation of the novel by Annie Ernaux.Courtesy of TIFF

Over and over again, Anne is told she has no choice, that a woman’s fate is to merely accept what happens to her, devoid of agency and power. Watching the teen slowly scratch and claw at those expectations in her quiet, stoically determined way is at once inspiring and heartbreaking, knowing how stacked the odds are against her. As the weeks tick by, reinforced with text on screen by writer/director Audrey Diwan, Anne’s plight becomes a taut thriller – with jail, death and expulsion ever looming.

Diwan’s film would be breathtaking and profound in any context, but knowing what lies ahead for the U.S. makes it all the more poignant, pressing and important. It also calls to mind 2020′s Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Eliza Hittman’s celebrated film about a young woman making the dangerous, complicated journey to get an abortion out of state. That movie was a tender, excruciating watch, a window into the powerlessness many young women face, and it’s a film that tragically, has only become more timely since its release.

Happening is set in the sixties, but Diwan’s stark, unwavering direction, coupled with sparing costumes and cinematographer Laurent Tangy’s intimate lens, lend the film a sense of timelessness. The power of Happening is in the terrifying knowledge that Anne’s struggles could be happening to anyone, at any time.

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