HAPPENING is a harrowing film about the personal risks women had to take in post war France to have an abortion.
Superbly directed by Audrey Diwan, it’s claustrophobic and takes on a thriller persona as student Anne Duchesne (an excellent Annamaria Vartolomei) faces a race against time to find someone who will perform an abortion on her.
It’s set in the early 1960s – just as Europe is shaking off the legacy of Nazism and the young are being liberated by a mix of music and drink. Yet sexual freedom is still very much in its infancy. Abortion is illegal and can be punishable by prison.
There are twists and turns galore – with little left to the imagination as we watch Anne go through an unsuccessful abortion – and then come back a second time with an aftermath that is difficult to watch. She also has a go at DIY (you will need to cover your eyes at this point).
You’re there with her – whether on the abortionist’s bed, writhing in agony afterwards and then sitting on the toilet in the bloody aftermath. It’s Vera Drake on steroids with a rather eerie soundtrack to crank up the horror of it all.
The work of cinematographer Laurent Tangy is both extraordinary and shockingly intimate. It is both close up and invasive with Anne the fulcrum for Tangy’s camera, whether drinking Coke at the bar, walking in a wood to speak to someone about getting an abortion, through to dealing with her body’s reaction to the intrusive work of the abortionist.
It’s raw, it’s powerful and a film with a statement: namely, that women have an absolute right to choose. In Anne’s case, it’s not that she doesn’t want a child, but more that she wants one on her terms. She’s a clever, bright student and a career in teaching beckons.
Her determination is all the more remarkable for the fact that she is stigmatised for getting pregnant – and shunned by her best friends. Her battle is at times a lonely and brave one – and she can trust no one. Even doctors lie to her, pretending to give her drugs that will enable her to abort when in fact their purpose is to strengthen the embryo.
The film is based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel L’Evenement. A book that Diwan read before making the film and that she described at a pre-release viewing at Picturehouse Central (London) as ‘powerful’. Diwan had discovered it after her own abortion.
Having read the book, Diwan was struck by the precise medical routine that surrounded her own experience – and the random factors governing Anne’s horrific journey. Would Anne find someone that she could trust? Would she be found out? (the abortionist tells her not to scream because the walls are so thin – If she does, she will stop the procedure). And of course, will she survive the ordeal?
Although it doesn’t spare the viewer, Diwan says she did not set out to make a provocative film. Nor did she want it to be rehearsed. ‘I wanted to see miracles happen,’ she said. She succeeded.
She hopes that the film will have widespread appeal. ‘It’s for people who knew the period [1960s],’ she said. ‘It’s also for a younger audience and for people against abortion.’ Her upcoming visit to the United States will be interesting, that’s for sure.
She knew that Vartolomei (only 20) would be perfect for the role of Anne as soon as she entered the casting room ‘and started interrogating me’. Lockdown, resulting in the film’s shooting being postponed, meant a lot of time was spent talking about Anne’s character.
The film is not without its fun moments – with Anne’s friend Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) bringing herself to orgasm with the help of a strategically placed pillow (shades of the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally).
There’s also a rather shocking scene when Anne’s mother (an otherwise kindly parent) hits Anne. Diwan said the first slap terrified her. It took many takes to get the frame right – Vartolomei not flinching once – but Diwan said the sound from the first take was used in the film.
Happening is an important film which will shock you more than provoke a smile. Indeed, in places, it’s like a horror film as you put your hands over your face to stop you watching what barbaric things are being done to the brave, courageous and resilient Anne.
Diwan has delivered a film that rightly won a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in September last year. She was also nominated at The British Academy Film awards for best director – an award that Jane Campion won for The Power Of The Dog.
Happening is released today (Friday, April 22).