.Whose body? Mine.: Abortion drama ‘Happening’ is more than just a worrisome blast from the past

Talk about the right movie in the right place at the right time. Filmmaker Audrey Diwan’s abortion drama Happening (L’événement) arrives in stateside theaters just as its subject is dominating the national discussion with the force of a thousand supernovas. Perfect timing for the story of a young woman faced with the Sisyphean task of making a decision about her own body, against an inert mountain of disdain. 

Anne Duchesne (French actor Anamaria Vartolomei, a native of Romania) hardly gives the impression of a heroic standard bearer. Blessed with a face lifted from neoclassical representations of mortal—and immortal—tragic figures and yet possessed of inwardly-directed contemporary cool, Vartolomei’s Anne is a talented student, anxious to enter university. However, she made that one little slip-up that now threatens her budding career: she’s pregnant, as well as unmarried.

Worse than that in this icily ironic scenario, she is determined to abort the pregnancy. As she explains to her unsympathetic gynecologue: “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life.” In 1963, in the community of Angoulême in southwestern France, that decision puts her into a social category just slightly more respectable than that of a bank robber. 

As the weeks add up in a procession of onscreen inter-titles, there is seemingly no one in her life to whom the increasingly anxious Anne can talk. She’s afraid to even bring up the subject with her preoccupied parents. Her girlfriends are intimidated by the threat of jail time for being an accessory to an abortion, and when word gets out that Anne is pregnant, cruel classmates taunt her— in those pre-social-media days—with porno clippings and rumors that she has syphilis. Both the doctors she consults refuse to help her out of her jam in any way. “Accept it,” says one, “you have no choice.” The one-night-stand rich kid who impregnated her simply has no time for her now, and Anne’s favorite professor washes his hands of her. She’s completely on her own.

These days, it may be difficult for us to believe that any character in 1960s France is so afraid of sex and its possible consequences. They conspire fearfully, as if they’re in the WWII anti-Nazi resistance movement. Naturally, observing Anne’s ordeal, our minds make the connection to this country in 2022 and the Supreme Court’s impending ruling. How many Annes do we know? And what will happen to them?

In a master stroke of narrative irony, Anne’s mother, who owns a small café, is portrayed by Sandrine Bonnaire, who once specialized in similarly rebellious females living on the fringes (A Nos Amours, Vagabond, La Cérémonie). But she’s no help either. Clearly director Diwan, who adapted the screenplay with Marcia Romano from a novel by Annie Ernaux (based on Ernaux’s experiences), intends to let her protagonist suffer stoically for the crime of wanting to cure herself of “the illness that strikes only women, and turns them into housewives.” Anne’s pale, worried features reflect the spirit of the everywoman condemned to live her life in a state of ultimate powerlessness. The pitiless camera never leaves her for a moment. 

Sadly, in cinematic history there’s never been a shortage of disheartening abortion dramas. Off the top of our head we’d recommend Nicholas Payne’s Citizen Ruth, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always as worthwhile illustrations of the woman’s point of view. Diwan’s austere effort doesn’t quite measure up to these, but the urgency of Happening’s message comes across loud and clear as a timely warning, and Vartolomei’s laconic performance drives home the despair and highlights the moral courage it takes for Anne to resist. Let’s keep a lookout for Diwan and Vartolomei’s names on their next projects. And let’s never forget to fight the power when it tramples human rights as hideously as it does in Happening.

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In theaters May 13

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