‘Happening’ Is a Grim But MassNewsly Warning from 1960s France

Itn Audrey Diwan’s tense and quietly radical film Happening, Anne, a bright young student in early 1960s France, discovers she’s pregnant. The law, as the doctor who breaks the news tells her, “is unsparing.” Anyone who helps her terminate the pregnancy will land in jail, as will she. When she confides in her distress, her closest friends leave her. The father of her unborn child absolves him of any responsibility. A doctor who feigns sympathy pretends to help her, though in reality he’s trying to seal her fate. And when she begs a male teacher to help her catch up on the lectures she’s missed, he asks bluntly what has caused her absence. “The illness that strikes only women,” she says, “and turns them into housewives.”

It Happens—which won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at last year’s Venice Film Festival—is a difficult film to watch. That’s in part because of an agonizing, if discreetly shot, scene in which the heroine—played with raw, bruised resolution by Anamaria Vartolomei—attempts a DIY abortion with a knitting needle. While there were many people leaving the Venice theater at this point, not one woman was among them.

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But Diwan’s film is less harrowing for its depictions of physical suffering than for its forthright exploration of Anne’s emotional desolation. She’s a country girl whose dream is to become a professor. But women who have sex before marriage are written off as “fast”—their sexual desire is treated as a flaw, a cause for shame.

It HappensThis is an adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s 2000 book, which describes her experience with abortion in 1963. It’s an unyielding picture in some ways; you might long for a sliver of optimism tucked amid its layers of grim truth. But then, all its hope lies in Anne’s face, as uncompromising as an early crocus. This is the face of a woman who deserves much more respect—for her body, for her very life—than her society affords her. It may sound like 1960s France is faraway, but it’s not. It Happens comes entwined with a warning: the country it’s showing us is likely be the United States of Tomorrow.

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