Director: Audrey Diwan
Stars: Anamaria Vartolomei, Luàna Bajrami, Fabrizio Rongione
In Audrey Diwan’s essential drama Happening (a.k.a. L’Événement), it’s protagonist’s world is the centre of everything. The fulcrum of every scene. Diwan uses handheld camerawork and deep focus to keep us within the realms of Anne’s (Anamaria Vartolomei) persistent mind. Whenever she’s at her most urgent and insular, the world around her is disseminated into a soft bleed of information. And, at times, this extends to Anne’s extremities. Hands and feet become dispersed, woozy information. The world outside of her skull lacks clarity. But her active mind – behind Vartolomei’s fiercely expressive eyes – is always critically focused.
We’re in France, and the late ’50s/very early ’60s. Anne is a bright and budding literary student who dreams of becoming a writer, whose studies are undermined by a sudden and unwanted pregnancy. Unfortunately for Anne, France’s draconian laws won’t allow her the agency to get an abortion. If she were to dare to – and survive it outside of the country’s medical services – a lengthy prison term would surely await. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Anne finds herself on a pressing countdown to abort her unwanted foetus while the procedure is still possible, the law be damned.
Hemmed in somewhat by the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Anne’s predicament is real, ordinary and unfortunately timely once more, considering how enthusiastically many of the United States are pushing ‘reforms’ that remove a woman’s right to choose. Given this reductive hostility, France’s gloomy past feels nakedly reflective of a divisive present. So much so that it’s worryingly easy to mistake the film’s early scenes for contemporary, or even Atwoodian warnings. Diwan has no interest in placating both sides of the argument. We’re to share Anne’s frustration and indignation. The film’s visual language (as intimated above) furthers this bias.
Intertitles chart the passing of weeks as Anne presses further into her first trimester. These cards only enhance the sense of urgency. More than the pressing deadlines of her coursework, Anne finds herself racing toward a point of no return. In the process Happening itemises the ways that her own desires are thwarted by others. One particular betrayal by a member of the medical profession stings the hardest.
With professional care out of the question, Anne turns to some inevitable alternatives. Diwan is unshrinking and the film’s attempted abortion scenes – while shying away from the raw exploitation of French extremism – are punishing watches, played out through Vartolomei’s wholly empathetic performance. We flinch as she flinches, we anticipate the pain as she does, jerk at the stabs when they come. The transference is quite something; queasy proof of how firmly Diwan has hold of us.
Anne’s friends through all of this present an array of reactions, from outright ostracisation to quietly affirmed solidarity, in the process offering a broad sampling of then-contemporary France. Louise Orry-Diquéro’s Brigitte would very much like to seem sexually liberated (to the point that she’s not averse to bringing herself to orgasm in front of her friends), vocally eager to embrace promiscuity. However, it is the relatively quiet Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) who reveals herself as the most attuned to Anne’s experiences. While Anne’s icy competition, Olivia (Louise Chevillotte), proves a vital ally when events start spiralling out of control. The two become unexpectedly connected during a pivotal – and unforgettable – scene of severance.
Happening can be hard going (deliberately so), and might reductively be dismissed as misery-porn if it weren’t both a) steadfastly angry for it’s heroine or b) so technically impressive. This is as true of the less outwardly bravura moments, also. Diwan may sharply contrast with focus to emphasise a point, but often the film is captivatingly naturalistic. Formally handsome but invisibly involving. It may prove tough but it is never dour. Anne’s resolve keeps the picture’s head held high, so much so that it’s pitch perfect final cut-to-black leaves the viewer as sure as it’s subject.
Diwan’s film doesn’t lecture it’s non-believers. It simply, effectively discredits them. Here endeth the lesson.
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