Happening Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: These programme notes are best read after viewing the film as they contain discussion of plot and character details.

Regional France, 1963. A young student of literature, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), is on her way to being brilliant. Her bar-owning, hard-working parents are in awe of her intellect – ‘Buy yourself a novel,’ Anne’s mother tells her, slipping her some cash – while her teachers are impressed by her sharpness and commitment to her studies. A working-class girl from the countryside, Anne knows that education is her one shot to climb the social and economic ladder. But, after a throwaway summer fling, Anne becomes pregnant and, in a country and time when single motherhood is unthinkable and abortion is illegal, her bright and shiny future threatens to get away from her.

Adapted from Annie Ernaux’s extraordinary semi-autobiographical novella, Happening takes place over the course of a gestation as Anne battles against the biological clock to find a way to end her pregnancy. ‘I’d like a child one day,’ she says, ‘but not instead of a life.’

But even asking about an abortion is enough to receive a jail sentence in 1960s France and little sympathy is extended to young women in Anne’s position. Both liberal and conservative doctors – always men – brush off her request to terminate her pregnancy, either refusing to compromise their careers by assisting Anne, or lying to her and prescribing ‘foetus-strengthening’ pills instead of miscarriage-inducing drugs. Her classmates, too, are caught in a trap of internalised misogyny, with innocent schoolgirl flirtations allowed, but not anything that could lead to tangible, messy consequences. Once Anne reveals her pregnancy, her friends abandon her, terrified that they’ll be contaminated by ‘the disease that only women get’ and the criminality of Anne’s desire to terminate her pregnancy. With no one left to turn to, Anne is left with a desperate decision: either return home, become a single mother and give up everything she’s worked towards, or risk jail and her own life by seeking an illegal abortion. Loneliness – the result of wanting to make a choice that affects her own body and no one else's – begins to swallow her up.

Happening’s director, Audrey Diwan, tells Anne’s story with clear-eyed, unsentimental focus. Title cards provide a countdown to when a termination will no longer be possible, while Anne is caught between denial and panic as she attempts to carry on towards her final exams. Diwan situates the audience in Anne’s perspective as we follow her journey – often literally placing the camera over Vartolomei’s shoulder – while a claustrophobic, nearly square 1.37:1 aspect ratio tightens around Anne’s face as she becomes increasingly desperate to find a solution.

Happening might be a period drama, but Diwan evokes the body horror genre to tell this story. In a nauseating scene, Anne tries to self-induce a miscarriage by sticking a knitting needle into her vagina in her college dorm-room. Fear, pain and a ferocious determination flash across Anne’s face as she struggles with the needle and a mirror. Botching that traumatic attempt, a backalley abortion becomes her only other option, a procedure that ends in nearly disastrous consequences. With brutal, meticulous realism, Happening dramatises the fact that making abortion a criminal offence doesn’t stop abortions; instead it only makes them dangerous, expensive and, frequently, deadly. The hypocrisy and injustice of Anne’s situation is almost as hard to watch as the gory abortion sequences.

Early in Happening, an unexpected scene occurs. One of Anne’s classmates sits atop a pillow, eyes closed in studious focus, to demonstrate the sexual position that she’s heard floods the body with the most pleasure. Anne, caught in her own misery of an unwanted pregnancy, watches her friend stimulate the joy of sex without reserve. Without sex education, without the internet, and without the freedom of being able to make mistakes, the young women of Diwan’s film are left alone to discover the pleasures and horrors of their own bodies. While the young men of Anne’s college are able to throw themselves recklessly around a football pitch, a dancefloor, a bed, Anne and her female classmates watch cautiously, remaining at the edges. After dabbing the skinned knee of a boy playing football, one girl is left with nothing but a bloody, stained handkerchief. ‘Look at your handkerchief,’ Anne tells her. ‘There. That’s all you got.’

Happening might be set almost 60 years ago, but the film’s nuanced exploration of bodily autonomy, freedom and consequence has stinging relevance today. ‘I wrote Happening to preserve the memory of the savagery inflicted on millions of girls and women,” Ernaux told the Observer. “It was also to descend as far as I could into what I call, at one point, “the shock of the real”.

A timeless and timely tale (and the winner of the Golden Lion for best film at Venice Film Festival), Diwan’s film is the latest in a recent wave of cinema exploring abortion with empathy, joining an ever-expanding canon that includes Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances (2019) and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020). While abortion remains a polemic topic today, and reproductive rights frequently under threat or simply non-existent around the world, films like Happening confront the viewer not with politics or debate, but with Ernaux’s ‘shock of the real’: the traumatic ordinariness of being denied choice. Diwan is uninterested in dramatising a pro-choice versus pro-life debate; instead she plunges us into Anne’s world and simply presents a cause and an effect of biology that has impacted tens of thousands of women across time, and, through doing so, asks: should the cost of freedom really be this much?

Katie Goh
Freelance journalist (VICE, Little White Lies, The Guardian)

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