Getting an abortion at this current moment can be a difficult thing even for those with excellent access to healthcare and abundant resources. Throughout history, it has mostly been an incredibly arduous and potentially life-threatening endeavor, one that held grave penalties for those who both were and were not successfully able to obtain an illegal procedure. The criminalization of abortion and the risks involved have still not stopped many from going through with something they believe is far more favorable to the alternative. Happening chronicles one young woman’s determination not to let an accidental pregnancy control her fate in 1960s France.
Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is an exceptional college student with a bright future. When she learns that she is pregnant, she knows that giving birth to a baby as an unwed mother will guarantee an immediate end to any career she wishes to have, and bring the judgment of an unkind and unforgiving society. Because abortion is illegal in France, Anne must go to extraordinary lengths to find someone willing to perform the procedure, with no way to know whether it will work and whether, after the fact, she may face a severe prison sentence if she is found to have undergone it.
From Anne’s first appearance on screen, it is clear that she is a highly motivated person who will do everything possible to achieve her aims. She knows what she is capable of and doesn’t want anything to get in her way, and certainly not something that she believes she can make disappear. Her commitment to her studies is unwavering, but even the best intentions can be disrupted when the effects of a makeshift operation result in her not being able to function at her previous capacity.
This film, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Never Sometimes Rarely Always, showcases the dangers of prohibiting abortion in a legal context, backing up the oft-cited pro-choice argument that criminalizing abortions doesn’t make it so that they don’t happen but rather that they don’t happen in a safe way. Because Anne is so set on getting rid of this particular problem, she will try anything, and she is confident enough in her own ability to be resilient that she doesn’t bother to consider whether what she is doing to her body could have harmful effects that could inhibit her in a much more severe way.
Happening, which is based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is now showing at the Sundance Film Festival. It serves as a powerful and formidable showcase of the way people are guided by societal expectations to prioritize their image over their health, and the way in which limited and backwards healthcare can be truly damaging. Director and co-writer Audrey Diwan delivers a compelling and powerful story laser-focused on its protagonist, who is played exceptionally by actress Vartolomei in a deeply memorable turn.
While this film is strong and should be seen, it must also come with a content warning. What is shown on screen mirrors the technology of the times and the instruments utilized to perform such a procedure outside of a hospital setting. No attempt is made to censor any of what Anne experiences, and audiences may find the scenes in which she acts to terminate her pregnancy very graphic and disturbing. Including those moments is a crucial part of underlining the barbaric nature of systems that force people into situations like this, a necessary part of shining a light on laws that actually make things much worse.
Happening is screening in the Spotlight section at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically by IFC Films on May 6th, 2022.