'Happening' Review: Sobering Drama Puts Back-Alley Abortions and Reproductive Warfare Under the Spotlight [Sundance]

One part autobiographical exorcism, two parts social warning, and a double-serving of real-world body horror, “Happening” combines just a handful of elements into a potent force. A bracing lead performance paired with patient yet informative directing accomplishes what few versions of this story could: it allows the story to tell itself without any heavy-handed monologuing or obsequious showboating. The result is difficult to watch yet impossible to turn away from, the legitimacy of its naked honesty seeping from every rough corner and crevice of the production.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name (“L’Événement”) by French writer Annie Ernaux, “Happening” tells the story of a young twenty-something, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), who is studying literature in Angoulême, France circa 1963. Anne lives in a university dorm with two girlfriends, and while they carouse at soda shops and sometimes dance with boys, they are part of the main student cohort that looks down on classmates who sacrifice academic opportunities in favor of romantic entanglements. This is more than just petty snobbery, though: this is self-preservation. France’s strict anti-abortion laws at this time punished not just the women who sought out abortions, but any doctors or sympathetic friends who assisted with the endeavor.

READ MORE: Sundance 2022 Preview: 20 Must-See Movies From The Festival

A one-time dalliance brings this horrible reality crashing down on Anne when her period fails to arrive, and a doctor confirms her worst fears. Unsure of who to turn to, and with school ramping up to the point that any interruptions in studies could lead to dismissal, Anne find herself in a scary, lonely place. This desperation manifests in increasingly awful decisions that are enough to make even the strongest stomach turn, painting a bleak picture of what a society without legal access to abortion looks like.

That makes for some difficult viewing at times, and yet all of it is essential, as each scene informs not just Anne’s story but what it would mean to live in this not-so-distant reality. Although Anne’s journey is intensely personal, what she’s experiencing is not only stitched into the social fabric of her school but into the national fabric of France. How this society treats its women (even amongst women) demonstrates the irrational cruelty of a world that punishes women for making inescapable choices about their own bodies. Whether it is the unsympathetic dismissals of doctors, the accusatory sniping of her classmates (who don’t want “her kind” around), or the men in her orbit who seem incapable of comprehending consequences – they all succeed in putting Anne on an island.

Director Audrey Diwan keeps a lot of this tight, in close-ups that feel almost suffocating at times. Although the film opens up occasionally to allow Anne some space – like when she’s strolling through the orchard leading to her family’s bar – it’s clear that these moments are less about the location itself than they are about Anne’s headspace. Later, when she has an uncomfortable encounter at a spacious beach, the camera stays on top of her again to emphasize the prickly nature of the moment.

These moves reinforce the distinctly verité quality that runs through the spine of “Happening,” which feels altogether appropriate considering the autobiographical source material. Set almost 60 years in the past, the film never puts the audience at a remove, staying right on top of Anne through a combination of scene construction, camera placement, and blocking. What’s more, the almost primal neutrality of the score, chirping at sudden intervals like a clocktower chiming in the distance, reinforces the oppressive dread that strums through the background of the piece like a lazy bass line, rarely allowing its lead a reprieve.

Vartolomei carries much of this in silence, yet the film never finds itself wanting for clues about how Anne is feeling from moment to moment. The scenes with her mother (Sandrine Bonnaire) in particular are a masterclass in measured restraint, as Anne teeters precariously on the edge between revealing her secret or keeping it to herself – her desperate, drowning eyes the only outward betrayal of the turmoil within. In depicting an age when living one’s truth and relying on one’s community is seen as essential to survival, to watch Anne flounder in a sea of uncertainty hits with even more profound effect.

Many of these filmmaking choices seem to conveniently mask what must have been budgetary restrictions that didn’t allow for broader shots requiring façade doctoring, period vehicle acquisition, and extra/wardrobe costs. Those unfamiliar with Ernaux’s novel might take a little longer to get their bearings, yet the story gets out of the blocks quick enough and paints a broad enough picture for anyone to follow along. And while it might not be an especially pleasant viewing experience, the picture is an imperative one in an age when abortions are still illegal in certain parts of the world (and are getting more restricted in the U.S. every day). Though Anne is a stranger to the audience at the beginning of the film, we get to know her intimately by film’s end. Soon enough, American society may also become more familiar with her struggles. [A-]

Read along with all our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival