Almost two years ago to the day, the abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Lauded for its raw portrayal of a teen girl leaving Pennslyvania to get an abortion in New York City, the film gained praise for its realistic approach to the controversial subject matter. If Eliza Hittman’s film looked at all the obstacles one must take to get a modern legal abortion, then French filmmaker Audrey Diwan’s newest film, Happening, looks at the process of getting one illegally in the 1960s.
Adapted from Annie Ernaux’s 2000 novel of the same name, Diwan and Marcia Romano’s script centers on Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a young literature student. After discovering she’s pregnant after a summer fling, she immediately realizes she doesn’t want children right now. With the societal stigma of having a child in 1963, she realizes her entire would negatively change if she goes through with the pregnancy. This would mean dropping out of school, losing her friends, and being unable to support herself and her baby. “I’d like a child one day,” she tells her doctor one point. “But not instead of a life.
Slowly, Anne begins to realize she is on her own in finding an abortion. Her doctor is sympathetic but warns her against the procedure as she could be criminally charged. When she finally tells her best friends and asks for their help, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), who is so sexually starved she searches for advice in her brother’s porn collection and then showed her friends how she masturbates, immediately tells Anne she’s on her own. Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) silently follows. Running out of options she asks her playboy friend Jean if he knows where she might be able to go. As she gets closer and closer to 12 weeks, she gets more desperate.
Actress Anamaria Vartolomei carries a panicked sadness behind her eyes, that only escalates as Happening goes on. A once reserved but sociable girl starts to change into something more reckless. With Vartolomei’s transformation, Diwan amps up the film’s thriller elements. The supporting character’s hypocrisy, from the slut-shaming of her masturbating friend, to the doctor who sympathizes with her but won’t do anything, to another doctor who falsely gives Anne “menstruating pills” that instead only make the fetus stronger, feels aggressive. When the abortion finally happens, Diwan makes the directorial decision to visually show the full effects of the abortion as if other people’s inaction brought Anne to this moment.
With slow pacing and alarmingly real imagery, Diwan’s Happening is not for everyone. However, being one of three Sundance films about abortion this year (it premiered at Venice in 2021) combined with rising debates and less accessibility to the procedure in the US, Anne’s story is more vital than ever.