by Nuha Hassan
Audrey Diwan’s Happening (L’Événement) follows a young woman’s efforts to terminate a pregnancy in order to continue her studies. Set in 1963 France, abortion is illegal and women who ask to get an abortion – or anyone who helps them – risk a jail sentence. Anamaria Vartolomei plays Anne Duchesne, a very talented literature student who has her studies and life ahead of her, and she is determined to figure out a way to get rid of the pregnancy even if people aren’t willing to help her. Happening is a moving story that shows the private trauma a woman goes through in making these decisions.
Anne, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) are college dorm-mates studying literature, and they are all getting ready to go to a dance. When they arrive, the room is surrounded by men and women, who are ready to slut-shame anyone. After the dance, Anne checks if she has gotten her period and writes “rien,” meaning nothing, repeatedly in her diary for three weeks straight. When the local doctor confirms her pregnancy, she asks him to do something, but he declines and urges her not to speak about it. Later, she visits another physician, who is supposedly sympathetic to her condition and prescribes a drug that will guarantee a miscarriage. She learns, however, that the drug is designed to strengthen the foetus. At this point, Anne is worried that her grades are slipping because of her pregnancy and not being able to terminate it, but she is determined to find a way because she doesn’t want it to be a distraction from her studies.
Happening keeps the focus on Anne’s turbulent emotions as she tries to solve this burden that has entered her life unexpectedly. She does not want the pregnancy to affect her chances of becoming a teacher, but when the three weeks turn into three months, she’s desperate to try anything. She’s alone throughout the entire ordeal and she has no one to help her due to how sexual intercourse is such a taboo subject for young single women like Anne. When Anne reaches out to her classmate Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), who might know where to get an abortion, he takes advantage of her and hits on her. He mentions that there is no risk anymore since she is already pregnant.
What’s special about Happening is how the main character fights for her own liberties. Anne never backs down, and the movie doesn’t try to romanticise the personal and silent trauma of obtaining an abortion, it stays true to how society treats women. Even when her doctors are clearly against her getting an abortion, like the one who lied to her about the real purpose of the drug, she fights for her autonomy. Anne never looks at her decision as a horrendous crime that could destroy the baby’s life. Desperate to terminate her pregnancy, she takes drastic measures, and she tries dangerous methods as her window of opportunity is closing slowly.
It’s clear that Anne cherishes her family and wants to have a family of her own, but she wants to be the one to control her destiny. Women like her mother Gabrielle (Sandrine Bonnaire), who runs a bar alongside her husband Jacques (Eric Verdin), all want the best for their children. Gabrielle and Jacques are very proud of her achievements in school and know that she will pass her exams with flying colours. It’s the idea that parents who worked hard put their children to school because they never had the opportunity to afford an education. If Anne chooses to keep the baby, her life would be a mirror to her parents’ and she wouldn’t be able to achieve her dreams.
Abortion is still illegal in many countries, and Happening underlines the serious risks of unsafe abortions, while also reminding the audience of the importance of women’s reproductive rights. It’s a compassionate movie and doesn’t shame women for choosing the right to decide what’s best for them and their own bodies. At the end of the movie, Anne refers to her situation as, “The disease that only women get,” almost like an unspoken protest against the act that criminalises women who refuse to stay silent.
Happening is a difficult watch, with an emotional and moving performance by Vartolomei, who portrays Anne’s emotional state with quietness. Anne figures out how to live her life normally as she attends class and hangs out with her friends at parties. Then, finally, she receives help from someone unexpected and almost risks her life instead of falling into circumstances against her decisions. Diwan focuses the film on Anne and her body’s journey to fight for her autonomy, and there are a few scenes that may be difficult for audiences to watch because of their explicit depiction of abortion. However, these scenes don’t try to sensationalise the act or Anne’s body, rather carefully focus on the procedure with care and seriousness. At this moment, Happening is a film that is very important for a lot of reasons. The conversation about abortions in the U.S. regarding the end of Roe v. Wade is a quite terrible and scary moment for a lot of people. The lack of access to abortion is reminiscent in this movie and it's chilling considering the turmoil and suffering women will have to go through in many states. This is an important film for the women’s rights movements and shows how it's important for women to make their own choices regarding their bodies.