Now that the Supreme Court looks like it is about to overturn Roe v. Wade, the haunting French abortion drama “Happening” (the French title is the more expressive “L’évènement”) strikes a double blow at our collective consciousness. Beautifully directed and cowritten by Audrey Diwan, from an autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, the movie boasts one of the most startling breakout performances in recent years from French – Romanian actress Anamaria Vartolomei
Set in 1963, at a time when abortion was still illegal in France (not until 1975 would French women obtain power over their own bodies), Vartolomei plays Anne, a gifted student in her early twenties who wants to be a writer. Her mom and dad (Sandrine Bonnaire plays the mom) run a small bistro. They are cognizant of the fact that Anne’s horizons have expanded beyond their world and every spare franc is put away to further Anne’s education.
It is provincial France and Anne lives in a women’s dorm where she attends classes and occasionally hangs out with her two best friends. Then, suddenly, she is pregnant. We are not privy to the moment of conception or (for most of the movie) who is the father. All we know is that Anne is absolutely sure that she does not want this baby. This is effortlessly conveyed by Vartolomei’s beautifully subdued yet extraordinarily powerful performance. At first Anne seems almost blasé about the whole thing. But, as the clocks ticks (we get a reminder of the weeks on the screen), she has no choice but to suffer indignity after indignity at the hands of the state and one sexist male doctor after another..
The Weeks Pass
As the weeks pass and Anne begins to “show'” we know that her time is running out and any attempt at a back street abortion is now becoming increasingly dangerous. And she has no one to talk to. Not her parents and not her friends who each turn their back on her. At least the protagonists in those other two superb abortion dramas – Christian Mungiu’s “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days” from 2007 and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” from 2020- had some form of friendly support.
Maybe it’s that year. 1963. Ian McEwan set his novel “On Chesil Beach” in that year. The year before everything changed. The two central characters in McEwan’s novel are destroyed by becoming newlyweds one year too early. However, despite Anne’s rejection by society, the medical profession and the state, there is always something in Vartolomei’s performance that keeps you optimistic, That maybe, just maybe, there is a new world coming.