Happening (L’Evénément) is a riveting film, from start to finish. The story about a young woman who finds herself unintentionally pregnant in 1960s France, a time and place where abortions were illegal, is universal and powerful, at once heartbreaking and liberating. Sixty years have passed since that era, yet the film holds powerful messages today in the face of pushback on women’s reproductive rights. The film is based on the semi-autobiographical book by Annie Ernaux.
Star Anamaria Vartolomei brings a ferocity to the role of Annie, a literature student who stands out intellectually in the lecture hall but doesn’t really get along with many of her classmates. It seems some of the other girls think she’s a “slut,” but her pale, placid face exudes confidence and indifference. She appears unconcerned with their knowing stares and uninterested in the advances of a string of boys.
When Annie discovers she’s pregnant, she looks the (male, because they’re all male) doctor in the eyes and commands him to “do something.” He begs off, chastising her that they could both go to jail for the mere discussion of it. Thus starts Annie’s journey to end her pregnancy so she can begin her life. “I’d like a child one day,” she says, ” but not instead of a life.” She doesn’t realize just how hard it will be to find a solution in the oppressive context of the era, much less actual help or emotional support.
Happening does a spectacular job rendering that atmosphere of repression. As Annie notes of the student dance parties they all attend, everyone there wants the same thing but nobody can admit it. Frustration is rampant. Her best friend demonstrates how to masturbate with a pillow, confessing she knows this is all she can have despite wanting more. We realize Annie attracts male attention because they think they might actually get somewhere with her.
When she confides in one male friend about the pregnancy, he makes a pass at her, arguing in the logic of his day that ‘there’s no risk’ considering she’s already pregnant. The baby’s father washes his hands of the situation. Her female friends want nothing to do with it either. We feel Annie’s disappointment in the people around her and growing panic that she won’t find a solution in time. The film announces each week of the pregnancy, adding to the sense of a clock ticking.
But Annie is also stoic, resourceful and determined. In desperation, she tries to abort the fetus herself with a sharp implement. It’s an excruciatingly painful scene, and it’s the first of several that get increasingly more violent. All of this is filmed in a remarkably honest and straightforward manner, scaffolded by natural lighting and sound. Director Audrey Diwan and director of photography Laurent Tangy follow Annie closely at all times, forcing the viewer to live the story from her perspective and not shy away from her harsh reality. In doing so, the film clearly empathizes with her plight.
This film required a genuine and physically demanding performance from Vartolomei, and one based more on gestures and looks than dialogue. Her wide, intelligent eyes seem to take in and understand everything. Annie demonstrates a fortitude and self-possession in the face of insults, deceptions and extreme physical duress. When she gets a modicum of relief, in the form of friends showing her kindness or a moment of normalcy with her parents or even a taboo fulfillment of desire, we feel relieved too.
A climactic, graphic scene could have felt gratuitous in the hands of a less capable director and actor. It will turn off some viewers, as the film as a whole surely will. But it is as emotional and overwhelming a moment for the viewer as for the character. Despite her resilience, Annie’s fate feels almost entirely out of her hands the whole movie, right up until the very last scene where she picks up her pen to take her final exams and start writing the rest of her life.