This review of Audrey Diwan’s film Happening is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance archive.
Since debuting at Venice last fall, where it won the coveted Golden Lion, Happening has tirelessly toured the global festival circuit. It’s already played several cities stateside (e.g., Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia), but it’s finally made it to its biggest US fest: Sundance. The abortion drama, set for a limited US release in May, marks the sophomore feature from French writer-director Audrey Diwan.
I call it an abortion drama, but it’s more like a thriller. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s Sundance-winning abortion film from 2020, would be more accurately described as a drama — shy, dark, creeping neorealism. But Diwan’s film plays at a surprisingly quick pace, wrapping us up in the suffocating, terrifying totality of the situation as immersively as possible and not without Diwan’s stylistic flare.
Meet Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a teenage girl in Angoulême, France, in 1963, which is rural enough to look more like 1953. Anne is also a semi-autobiographical version of Annie Ernaux, the author behind the book the film was adapted from. The story’s setup is relatively routine: a nonchalant hookup at a party; a pregnancy ensues. The aftermath is anything but: a brutal several-month journey to get an illegal abortion to pursue a life of research and education; something single motherhood would likely thwart (“I want a child, but not instead of a life.”).
Anne and her friends are thinkers – they casually talk Camus and Sartre, justice and humanity and politics – so it makes sense that she’s measured in her actions. Sparing in who she tells but confident and plainly spoken in her decision, Anne visits doctors and specialists in hopes of discovering an alternative option or underground outlet. But even that is a minefield. For one, it’s illegal for any doctor to help her, and one who is caught doing so can go to prison. Secondly, the pro-life sentiment is so strong among her staunch Catholic community that people are willing to trick her into seeing the baby come to term. Friends, family, everyone is against her.
One doctor prescribes her a pill that should help get rid of the baby, but upon telling another doctor that her hope is now in the pill, the second doctor hangs his head. As it turns out, the doctor that prescribed the pill was lying. The second doctor tells her it’s something doctors against abortion prescribe to strengthen the womb of those who want an abortion, and it will contribute to future failed attempts for Anne.
The failed attempts are some of the most difficult to watch. But the difficulty in watching them is born from Diwan’s direction, which is so engrossing, so carnal, so empathetic that it hurts to look at. I will let you discover them on your own because they are feats of cinematic excellence but know that they’re coming, and moreover, know that Happening is not for the faint of heart.
Among everything else mentioned, the tighter aspect ratio provides a more pressed mood throughout. Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s minimalist score creates a palpable, ever-growing tension. It mixes wonderfully with the sound design, whose body noises are bound to get a reaction out of you whether you want it or not. Not to mention the tact and subtlety with which the story is written (Diwan co-wrote it with Marcia Romano) and how that grabs an audience in a much more significant way than on-the-nose filmmaking. There seems to be a major divide in tasteful filmmaking between the US sections and the World sections. Happening is a great example. Compare it to the American indie Dual, a third film that feels like a first. This might only be Diwan’s second, but it feels like veteran work. No doubt we will be anxiously awaiting her next.
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