French film “Happening”, which won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival, often feels like a hard empathic gut-punch. Firmly sticking around its young heroine who happens to be in a very unfortunate situation, the movie gradually lets us immersed in her increasingly desperate status step by step, and we come to understand and empathize more with that as bracing ourselves for whatever she may have to endure along the story.
The movie, which is based on Annie Ernaux’s confessional essay “L’événement”, immediately put us into its young heroine’s world without much background explanation. The main background is some college campus in France of the early 1960s, and the opening scene shows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) preparing for having another fun evening along with her two close college friends. We subsequently see them entering a local bar full of young people just like them, and we sense a trouble as Anne finds herself attracted a bit toward of one of those young men at the spot.
However, it soon turns out that she has already been in a big trouble. Having been quite disturbed by having no menstruation at all for more than one month, Anne goes to a doctor, and, what do you know, she turns out to have been pregnant for several weeks. Anne naturally cannot believe this news at first, but her body does not lie, and she comes to experience more signs of pregnancy as days go by.
As a smart and intelligent student who wants to study more for realizing her aspiration, Anne naturally does not want her life and dream to be ruined by this unwanted pregnancy, but, unfortunately, there is not any easy option for her from the beginning. Believe or not, abortion was strictly forbidden by the French government during that period, and any attempt on illegal abortion could lead to a criminal prosecution followed by incarceration.
What follows next is not so far from what millions of women are silently and miserably suffering around the world even at present. While not so willing to tell anyone about her ongoing pregnancy, Anne tries to find any possible way to get an abortion, but, not so surprisingly, she often finds herself against the wall more than once. Her doctor is sympathetic to her to some degree, but he does not want to get into any trouble. Her close college friends feel sorry for her when she finally confides her pregnancy to them, but they do not want to know more once she tells them about abortion. The lad responsible for her pregnancy is certainly caught off guard by the news, but this prick is not so willing to help her while evading his responsibility. In case of some other doctor she later visits for a second opinion, well, all I can say is that I still want to pummel and then strangle this m*therf*cker for a good reason.
As the situation gets direr for her, Anne tries to keep things under control as before, but her state of mind is gradually overwhelmed by her growing dread and anxiety, and that affects her relationships with several figures who care about her a lot. She begins to underachieve in her recent tests, and her professor, a caring educator who has noticed her for a while, personally asks her whether there is any problem, but she cannot possibly answer. Because her parents have had lots of expectation on her, she cannot tell them about her pregnancy either, and that results in considerable emotional strain between her and her mother.
Around the point where our heroine finally gets an opportunity to have an abortion, the movie continues to maintain its austere storytelling approach under the skillful direction of director Audrey Diwan, who also adapted Ernaux’s essay with Marcia Romano and Anne Berest. As cinematographer Laurent Tangy’s handheld camera constantly focuses on our heroine during many key extended scenes in the film, we come to sense more of her biological clock ticking day by day, and her palpable sense of desperation and suffocation is further accentuated by the screen ratio of 1.33:1.
This is surely not something easy to watch, but the movie does not let its heroine and itself merely mired in misery and despair, and, above all, it is strongly held together by the powerful lead performance by Anamaria Vartolomei. While ably conveying to us many different feelings and thoughts swirling inside her character, Vartolomei balances her performance well between vulnerability and resilience, and she is the main reason why we keep focusing on the screen during several certain harrowing scenes in the film. These scenes will definitely make you wince more than once, but you will also admire how deftly Diwan and her cast and crew members handle these scenes with considerable restraint and skill while not pulling their punch at all.
Around Vartolomei, Diwan assembles a number of good performers. You may instantly recognize more notable cast members including Kacey Mottet Klein, Sandrine Bonnaire, and Fabrizio Rongione, but they dutifully stay in their respective spots without overshadowing Vartolomei at all, and the special mention goes to Anna Mouglalis, who brings some life and personality to a no-nonsense illegal abortionist who comes to help our heroine more than expected.
On the whole, “Happening” strikes us hard as much as other similar acclaimed female drama films such as Christian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007) and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020). This is indeed a very tough stuff, but it is still worthwhile to watch for not only its ever-relevant main subject but also its considerable technical achievement and emotional power, and it surely earns its haunting finale after its grueling but gripping emotional journey.