Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review: HAPPENING

 by Rob DiCristino

An abortion drama that refuses to pull its punches.

“Everyone here wants the same thing,” says Anne (Anamarie Vartolomei) as she surveys a college party. “They’re just too afraid to admit it.” And she’s right! Young adult life is defined by abject, debilitating horniness. These kids in early-1960s France can’t indulge those impulses, at least not yet, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t dispense with some of society’s more puritanical behavioral standards if they wanted it enough. Isn’t it okay to want? Anne certainly wants quite a bit: A university education, a career as a writer, and, hell, maybe a lover or two. But to Anne and her peers, pregnancy is a social landmine, an “illness that turns women into housewives.” Birth control of any kind is completely off the table, and abortion is so illegal that even its mention comes with stern warnings in hushed tones. So, despite all temptation, Anne and her friends will study hard and focus on their exams. Anne refuses to settle for the blue-collar life her parents led. She will define her own path with the strength and tenacity that brought her this far. But still, she wants.
A few weeks later, Anne wants an abortion. That’s it. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t want to confess to sinful actions and be set on the righteous path. She doesn’t want to be looked at as a pariah. She doesn’t want to give up school to be a housewife. She doesn’t want a child — at least not at the expense of the rest of her life. She simply wants an abortion and sets out to get one. We’ve seen these stories before, of course, but while films like Juno and Never Rarely Sometimes Always use their characters’ pregnancies as conduits that allow them to come of age or escape abusive relationships, Happening isn’t concerned with moralizing or allegory. In adapting Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Audrey Diwan keeps her protagonist’s purpose clear: Anne isn’t conflicted about motherhood. She isn’t weighing her options. This isn’t a religious issue. She simply wants access to medical care. But in attempting to exercise this basic agency over her own body, Anne faces a host of insurmountable challenges.

Happening is a superb and uncompromising portrait of those challenges, some so maddening that they’ll leave you wondering how Anne overcame the urge to feed every sanctimonious doctor and gossipy co-ed into a woodchipper. One physician encourages her to accept her mistake and make the best of it. Another lies to her about a treatment he’s prescribing, which will actually strengthen the embryo rather than eliminate it. When Anne confides in her friend Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), hoping his reputation for romance has yielded connections in this arena, he takes it as an invitation for consequence-free sex. Hunky firefighter Maxime (Julien Frison) is useless, as well; his only concern is ensuring his friends don’t find out he got Anne pregnant. When she finally does undergo an abortion — which she pays for by selling books and other personal items — it doesn’t take, which forces her to undergo a second procedure that nearly kills her. And still, the most upsetting thing about Happening is that Anne must do all this entirely on her own.
Viewers should be warned that Happening is not for the faint of heart. Anne’s abortion is depicted in its entirety — in one long, uninterrupted shot — as is the expulsion of her fetus in the dormitory bathroom sometime later. I highlight these details not to be graphic or give away important plot details (Spoilers: She gets an abortion), but to praise Diwan and her team for trusting their audience to be as brave as Anne is, to empathize with a person forced to take her medical care into her own hands by the catastrophic hypocrisy of a world that claims to believe in her safety. While Happening rightfully portrays the abortion as a brutally painful experience, its true emphasis is on the brutality of a culture so misogynistic that it left Anne no other options. All the more impressive is the fact that Anne is never low status: She is confident, organized, and surefooted, fighting with every fiber of her being to do what is right until she no longer has the strength to do so, which quietly makes her one of the most remarkable characters the screen has seen all year.
With all the noise surrounding a woman’s right to choose (It’s distressingly fitting that Happening releases in the U.S. just days after conservative Supreme Court justices declared war on Roe v. Wade) Diwan’s message is absolutely crucial: Anne’s choice is her own. She will not justify, explain, or apologize for it. The best and most productive thing a civilized society can do is give her the safest and most expedient means with which to exercise that right. Happening isn’t interested in arguing with you. It’s not going to get in the weeds debating whether or not Anne should have had sex (In fact, Diwan skips the tryst that gets her pregnant but includes a later one that serves as a cathartic bit of distraction during her most trying moments). It’s not going to let you feel bad for her. Anne is above that. These “shoulds” and “should nots” are not the real narrative, anyway; They’re empty diversions meant to diminish the basic human dignity of Anne and so many women like her. In the end, Happening succeeds because it keeps its focus on what matters: Anne.

Happening
is in select theaters now.

1 comment:

  1. Saw this Tuesday afternoon (review coming this weekend). Tremendous film, and Anamarie Vartolomei (who is in every single frame except for two quick shots, and even those are Anne's hazed POV) gives humanity to a character that could have easily come across as off-putting. Not an easy movie to watch, but one l'll cherish for having the balls to depict its conviction uncompromisingly. Casting Sandrine Bonnaire as the solution to Anne's problems is icing on the cake, especially if you've seen 1983's "À Nos Amours." 😎😳

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