Audrey Diwan’s Happening follows a young woman’s journey in the 1960s to even find a backstreet abortionist amidst a culture of shame and silence.
After premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2021, the film screens in the Spotlight Section at Sundance 2022.
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Though the world is hardly overflowing with films about abortion, the handful that do exist have set the bar high. Contemporary stories tend to focus on abortion as just another stressor in a woman’s day-to-day life (Saint Frances, Obvious Child, Anaïs in Love), late-term abortions (24 Weeks), getting together funds for an illegal abortion (Lingui, the Sacred Bonds) or the systemic barriers that still exist for legal abortions (Never Rarely Sometimes Always). Most period pieces have focused on either backstreet abortionists (Vera Drake) or the harrowing experience of the abortion itself (the power dynamics in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the failed home abortion in Revolutionary Road). It’s actually shocking that Audrey Diwan’s Happening is one of the only period films about abortion to be less about the abortion itself and more about the culture of shame that makes even finding someone to do your terrifying backstreet abortion nigh impossible.
Based on the memoir of Annie Ernaux, Diwan delicately transports us to 1960s France, recognizable mostly through the period-appropriate (if not overtly so) clothing, high ponytails, and prevalence of phone booths. Here, Diwan follows in the footsteps of other recent European period dramas — e.g., A Radiant Girl, Fabian: Going to the Dogs, Transit — which downplay their period origins to more explicitly comment on the present, to excellent effect. Abortion is still illegal in many places, and even where it is legal, as other films (like Obvious Child) have explored, there’s still a culture of shame surrounding it — it’s just so much worse in the 1960s. As protagonist Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) comments much too pointedly about a poem in her literature class, the film “uses a lover’s drama to evoke a national one.” But I hope audiences don’t see this merely as a cautionary tale about what happens when we ban abortion, because even with legal abortion, our attitudes haven’t changed much.
We first meet Anne in her dorm room, surrounded by her two best friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), preparing to go out dancing: they’re pinning each other’s bras tighter to make them work more like push-up bras. Brigitte, the brashest of the bunch but also the least experienced, declares that she would want to have sex with herself. Hélène demurs, so they suggest she hike up her skirt instead. It’s the perfect set up for the contradictions at the centre of the culture these teenagers find themselves in: they’re sex-crazed enough to want to flaunt their assets, flirt with boys, and talk about their desire for sex, but god forbid anyone ever actually has sex or, as we soon learn, they’ll be ostracized and on their own. At this point, Anne is already pregnant, though she doesn’t know it yet. We soon find out she’s a star student with her eye on a university education and that her parents are scraping together funds to help her complete her studies — all of which heighten the stakes for how life-destroying having a child could be for her.
Listen to our podcast on abortion on screen
Back in 2020, we went deep on depictions of abortion on screen, including in the films 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Obvious Child, Saint Frances, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Once Anne realises she’s pregnant, she also realises she’s completely alone — so much so she can’t even get a lead on where to find an abortion. When a doctor informs her she’s pregnant, he offers no solution but to have the child. When trying to see another doctor for a second opinion, and hopefully some help, he flat out lies to her whilst sneering at her. She can’t tell her parents as her position at school is already precarious enough. The father was a one-night stand who lives far away. When asking a male friend for help, he decides to use her knocked up state as an excuse to make a pass and assault her. One minute, Brigitte is demonstrating, with a pillow, how to masturbate and (equally) fuck; the next, she can’t wait to judge Anne for being a ‘slut’ for having acted on the desires they all share.
In 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, finding an abortionist wasn’t the film’s preoccupation; dealing with his manipulations, sexual assault, and the dangers of the procedure were the centre of the drama. Anne doesn’t even have the privilege of getting this far on her journey to find an abortion until very late in the film. In the meantime, she starts losing all of her support network. Understandably stressed out, her grades start slipping, and the one professor who was her personal cheerleader starts declaring her a failure. When she has no recourse but to go to the fetus’s father for help, he’s more concerned about her not-so-sunny disposition making him look bad in front of his friends than in the very real danger she’s dealing with. It’s only through whispers and favours — though nobody ever actually says the word ‘abortion’ — that Anne finds somebody to do it. But she’s far enough in that it’s incredibly dangerous, and as she’s informed, if she ends up in hospital, it’s a roll of the die whether they declare it a miscarriage or an abortion, the latter of which would send her to prison.
At every step of her journey, Anne encounters some form of misogyny. There’s the fact that all of the doctors are men, and don’t see the value of not wanting to be a teenage mother — except for how it might be shameful to do so while single. There aren’t even any female institutional authority figures that Anne can turn to, like a female professor. Revealing her pregnant status to men only invites come-ons and assumptions that if she had sex once, she should have sex with them. The women in her life are scared both of the patriarchal laws that ban abortion and of dealing with the very real consequences women can face when having unprotected sex. The one kind thing that Anne does for herself is have sex with a sweet fireman, but birth control never once even enters the picture, and this night of solace could have had a very sad ending were she no longer pregnant.
At the Venice Film Festival, Happening took home the biggest prize, the Golden Lion, and the FIPRESCI Prize, before being passed over by France for the Oscar submission (they chose Titane, instead). Keeping in mind that people were walking out of movies featuring gay sex at Venice as recently as ten years ago, it’s a pretty progressive choice as a winner — especially in a Catholic country which ostensibly frowns on premarital sex. Happening is one of the very best depictions I’ve seen of the incredibly effective misogynistic and patriarchal system of shame that works to control women’s bodies — not just in the 1960s but still today. Its cinema vérité approach — with long takes and a handheld camera — certainly works for the film, but it also makes the aesthetic the least interesting thing about it, for better or worse. I don’t think France was wrong to pass this over for the much more formally inventive and audacious Titane, but I do think audiences should see Happening — not just as a cautionary tale for why we need to maintain women’s rights, but how legal rights alone are only half the battle.
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