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Happening (L’événement) really is a happening, a remarkable film about a subject that seems to demand a certain sort of treatment which goes out of its way not to deliver it.

The subject is abortion in a country where it is illegal, France in the early 1960s, where we meet Anne, probably the prettiest of three good-looking young women, certainly the smartest, most studious and level-headed and the one most likely to be about to do something with her life.

Anne has her good friends, her university studies, the parents at home who adore her and who she visits at weekends. Director Audrey Diwan paints the picture with a few sunny strokes, the image warm, the backgrounds fuzzily defocused.

And then Anne realises her period is late and she’s pregnant. She’s never had sex, she says, not because she’s an idiot or the beneficiary of an immaculate conception but because young women in Angoulême, where she studies, don’t do that sort of thing.

From here Diwan takes us into a timeline tunnel – at four weeks’ pregnant Anne is visiting a second doctor hoping he’ll give her what her own doctor wouldn’t. At five she has morning sickness. At seven she tries a self-abortion procedure – all you need is a knitting needle, a hand mirror, a table lamp and a high pain threshold. At ten she finds the name of a backstreet abortionist. And on it goes.

This is no Vera Drake. For all the often wince-making imagery, Diwan gives us a film of light and beauty, the camera focusing tightly on Anamaria Vartolomei’s bright clear face. She is the entire film, in every scene, often in invasive close-ups, the effect of which shifts the focus from the deed itself to Anne’s increasing desperation to sort out her predicament.

Brigitte, Anne and Hélène
Brigitte, Hélène and Anne

Never mind the rights and wrongs of having an abortion – and I’m writing this within days of Roe v Wade being overturned in the US – the focus here is on a young woman’s personal experience, entirely alone, in a society so hostile to what she’s doing that even her besties Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) stop talking to her, and the only hearing she can get is from guys hoping to take advantage of the situation – after all, if someone’s pregnant, you can’t get them pregnant again.

Anna Mouglalis’s cracked deep voice makes her a good choice as the backstreet abortionist, and Sandrine Bonnaire is one of the other names who undoubtedly helped get the film its exposure – in one scene where 10-weeks-pregnant Anne hugs her mother (Bonnaire), Bonnaire delivers a facial reaction shot moving from simple joy to mild bewilderment to some sort of semi-knowing. That’s what good actors can do.

Laurent Tangy’s camera is up in Vartolomei’s face almost the entire time, achieving a claustrophobic, almost suffocating sense of urgency, and the soundtrack by Sacha and Evgueni Galperine reflects that focus on intimacy. The Galperines are suddenly very much sought after, and if you want to know why, look at their IMDb credits – everything they work on (from TV shows Scenes from a Marriage and The Undoing to François Ozon’s By the Grace of God and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless) is good. The craft is universally of a very high quality though – from the unobtrusive but decisive editing to the atmospheric sound design down to hair and make-up, they all tell the same story.

Happening won the Golden Lion award at Venice in 2021, just one of a raft of gongs that Vartolomei and Diwan have picked up for the film. Both were relatively unknown before but now Happening has happened and things are probably going to change for ever.

Happening (L’événement) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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