Anne, the French university student played by Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening, was born in 1940. This means that in the year that Anne turned three, Marie-Louise Giraud was put to death by guillotine for the crime of being an abortionist.
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By the early 1960s, when Happening in set, things were much easier. Anne will only face prison time if she elects not to keep the fetus growing inside her. So will any doctor who helps her. Even her friends might be charged with being accomplices to the crime.
With abortion laws expected to change in the Unites States sometime next month, the release of this French film could not be more timely. Directed by Audrey Diwan, who was born in 1980 (five years after abortion became legal in France), the story is based on a memoir by her countrywoman Annie Ernaux.
It is not an easy film to watch, though that’s part of the point. As the weeks tick by, Anne grows increasingly frantic, unable to concentrate on her studies or find a way out of her predicament. In a cruel irony, the medicine one doctor prescribes “to make you menstruate again” turns out to be a hormone to help the fetus thrive. An at-home attempt with a knitting needle fails as well.
It would not do to tell how the story ends, although clearly Ernaux lived to tell the tale. But along the way to its conclusion she is subjected to all manner of indignities, from the doctor who tells her to “just accept it” to a friend who assumes that since she’s already had sex he might have a chance. “There’s no risk if you’re pregnant,” he explains helpfully.
Subject matter aside, Happening is a beautifully shot film, and Vartolomei gives a fantastic performance of a woman unaware of where to turn, or to whom. The actress was born in 1999 in Romania, where abortion has been legal since the fall of Communism ten years earlier.
If you want to see what it was like before that, you could watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a 2007 film by Cristian Mungiu that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Happening (its French title is l’événement) took home the Golden Lion at the most recent Venice film festival. Clearly, such stories, told well, continue to resonate.
Happening opens May 13 at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
5 stars out of 5