“Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved” — Victor Hugo
Winner of the Golden Lion Award at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, Audrey Diwan’s (“Losing It”) harrowing abortion drama Happening takes place in rural France during the 1960s, a decade before abortion was legalized in France. Based on the memoir by Annie Erma (“Les Années Super-8”), the film is a gripping and, at times, uncomfortable reminder of the inherent physical and emotional dangers of illegal, “back-alley” abortions, procedures that pose a danger to the unborn child as well as to the health of the mother. Co-written by Marcia Romano (“Peaceful”) and brought to life by the naturalistic cinematography of Laurent Tangy (“Mascarade”), the film dramatizes a young woman’s painful quest to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.
In a perfectly realized performance by Anamaria Vartolomei (“How to Be a Good Wife”), Anne Duchesne is an ambitious literature student in her early twenties with aspirations to become a writer. She lives at a school dorm with her best friends Hélène (Luàna Bajrami, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro, “Occidental”), independent from her parents, Jacques and Gabrielle (Eric Verdin, “Faithful” and Sandrine Bonnaire, “Into the World”). While immersed in her studies to gain admittance to a top university, Anne discovers that she is pregnant, a situation that will threaten her continued education.
Diwan is unsparing in her depiction of the physical and emotional trauma a young girl had to go through to have an abortion, allowing us to see the graphic details that make Happening essential viewing for those confronting the Supreme Court decision to terminate Roe v Wade, the ruling that has protected abortion seekers and providers for the last fifty years in the United States. Until the moment of discovery, Anne is hard to distinguish from her immature roommates who spend their days studying and their nights looking for adventures at the local clubs.
Here, women who interface too much with boys are called “loose” or “sluts,” and their sexual encounters consist of acting out of fantasies within their own dorm. When her roommates discover that Anne is pregnant, the temperature in their room plummets to zero, and Anne finds only grudging support from her “best friend” Brigitte, who tells her coldly that “it’s not our business.” While Diwan shows us the humiliation that Anne must endure, we learn very little of her history or her background and neither do we learn much about the young man who impregnated her.
Aware of the possibility of jail for the patient and the medical practitioner, a doctor she has trusted (Fabrizio Rongione, “The Unknown Girl”) in the past tells her that she has to keep the child, reminding her that she cannot even discuss the matter with him. In addition, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein, “Being 17”), a male friend, turns Anne’s plea for help into a sexual proposition asking “why not?” since she no longer has any risk of becoming pregnant. Ultimately, Anne finds a surreptitious practitioner, Madame Rivière (Anna Mouglalis, “The Salamander”) but that is only the beginning of her sorrows.
Yet, for all of its disturbing images, in telling this “horror” story, Diwan avoids melodrama, offering a tense, engaging, and realistic picture of what the world was like for a young woman who is carrying an unwanted child and what it could be again unless our collective voices are heard. Like events shown in Ursula Meier’s brilliant 2012 film “Sister,” life for an unwanted child may not be better than no life at all. Meier makes it evident that growing up in a world without love, even the most skillful and resilient child cannot fill the gaping hole it leaves.