Audrey Diwan’s Happening, which won last year’s Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, finds itself with a U.S. release date incidentally coinciding with legislative changes which make it all the more timely. It is a frank film about unwanted pregnancy and rigid abortion laws in 1960s France. Viewing it with American eyes, I imagine one’s appreciation for the content in the film may rest on individual politics. That, or one’s patience for quiet drama and arthouse chic.
Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), after discovering she is a few weeks pregnant, seeks out the possible channels for an abortion. Doctors steer her away from it (or baldly lie to her with fake prescriptions). She is uncomfortable calling on her friends for advice — unfortunately, rightfully so, given their reactions when she does eventually divulge her secret to them. It seems impossible to find a way out of her pregnancy through legal means, and the illegal means few and far between could get her imprisoned.
This is the conflict of the film. Anne fruitlessly circles the well looking for answers until it all but dries up. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly alienated from those around her — her friends shun her, her other peers call her “loose,” and the men in her life are only hostile. Her grades fall, threatening to jeopardize her entire future. Her personal struggle bleeds into every facet of her life, leading to a dreary series of anxious weeks.
The film is divided into week-long chapters, and the further we get into the pregnancy the more repetitive things become. The isolating spiral continues, and it becomes harder to see a way out for Anne. Diwan effectively plants us in Anne’s predicament, with the camera returning to a closeup on her face or just over her shoulder, peering into her perspective from behind.
The motif of the female body also recurs, depicting it from variable perspectives of warmth and sterile coldness, and the script overtly asks the viewer to consider the gaze on that body. Given that the camera continually oscillates between emphasizing Anne’s face and concealing it, this motif works to ground the themes of the film in the protagonist’s isolated situation. The camerawork lacks flare but still grips the viewer alongside Anne, drawing them into her emotional journey.
Although, the journey itself may fall short in its progression and pacing. As the weeks stretch on and things get worse, the story gets stuck in the rut of its main character and, as a result, struggles to maintain its intensity and urgency. The narrative is also slightly over-burdened by the weight of its protagonist’s bleak situation, even as it excels with its austere composition and beautiful framing. But Vartolomei gives this material body and life, filling the edges of the frame with pathos. Hers is a transfixing, understated performance which ultimately carries the film.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)