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Happening

Audrey Diwan’s astonishing adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir charts the cruelty of bureaucracies and an unfeeling state in a society in transition

Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening

Early on in Happening, Audrey Diwan’s Golden Lion-winning adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s 2000 memoir, a professor of literature asks author-alike Anne what the literary name for a figure of repetition is, in front of a lecture theatre of fellow students. ‘Anaphora,’ she confidently replies. This moment seems like Diwan partially revealing her hand, tipping a wink to the rhythmical structure which underpins the film’s shape – a pattern of dramatic repetition.

Everything changes for Anne on discovery of her unwanted pregnancy. It is the event (the happening, l’événement, as in the French title) which can barely be named – partly for the veil of enforced secrecy that renders any attempt at termination illegal, partly for its sheer incomprehensible horror. Happening follows Anne’s repeated and arduous attempts at getting an abortion in 1960s France – and the failure of each in turn. This anaphoric pattern of relief quickly thwarted creates a recurring rocking motion between hope and despair throughout the film, more potent than mere constant dread.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Ernaux’s memoir and the film is this shift from the interior terror of unwanted pregnancy, albeit abstracted a little by time, to the more external film narrative. We are told and shown that Anne has a brilliant mind and would be a terrible loss from academia and contemporary literature, unlike the book – which communicates this through the subtler implication that, had the pregnancy gone ahead, there would be no memoir at all. Thus, the film is slightly more interpretable as a questionable cautionary tale about the effects of restrictive policies on the exceptional and deserving. Yet Diwan’s choices mitigate such effects, with Anamaria Vartolomei’s subtle central performance foregrounding the sheer human pain over Anne’s relative exceptionality. It is everyone else who is obsessed by her academic potential, which ends up as yet another cruel bureaucracy, heaping pressure upon Anne as she attempts to escape the prisons of motherhood and the state, and survive.

Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening

Anaphora maps onto Anne’s tragic descent. Anne is a star student, knowing all the answers while another female student is upbraided for poor focus. Yet late in the film she receives similar criticism from the same professor, her written work and in-class concentration badly affected by her situation. (Indeed, one effect of the call-back is to make us question the circumstances of the earlier student; perhaps there was more to her ignorance than inattentiveness.) Anaphora also powerfully drives the film’s queasy oscillating motion between seemingly successful escape from pregnancy to each abortion attempt being revealed as a failure. The first doctor does not entertain her request for an abortion, asking her to leave. Yet a second one prescribes Anne something, appearing to be receptive to Anne’s pleading entreaties. The medication does not work. In fact, we later learn that this prescription was designed to strengthen the foetus and make it more difficult to abort. The same process of imagined relief and disappointment occurs again and again – failing to end the pregnancy with a knitting needle, and even by a trip to a Parisian abortionist. Only on a second visit is the pregnancy finally ended, but almost at the cost of Anne’s life.

The film has the visual stylings of a conventional biopic, its close-up focus on Anne compounded by the claustrophobically square aspect ratio. Unshowy on-screen intertitles, starting ‘7 semaines’ and counting the weeks as they tick by from there, rachet up the tension with the simple dread of a ticking clock. The film commits to several startling visual moments – such as unbroken shots of attempted medical procedures – yet the sound-world Diwan has curated also lends the film an eerie tension. Evgueni and Sacha Galperine score Happening like a horror film, punctuated by strange, muted piano and string notes which crackle with building menace. Diwan scores many moments with only silence, shifting sound levels to evoke Anne’s world tilting off its axis. After Anne’s diagnosis, everything sounds very loud, except other people – who are muffled into obscurity. She is alone in a dissonant, hostile world.

The film commits to a pervasive realism, especially true of its frank medical scenes. Two abortion attempts are presented in real time, the second in a long single shot that captures Anne’s agony and the focused precision of abortionist Mme Rivière. It plays out with the grim logic of a horror drama as Rivière tells Anne that if she screams then she will have to stop. If the neighbours overhear the abortion, they could both end up in prison. Anne must endure agony silently, almost akin to the wincing pain of 2018 horror film A Quiet Place. Yet this horror is distinctly realistic and real. As Mme Rivière is almost finished, Anne lets out a sudden cry. The abortionist gives her a look, then quickly finishes up – the scream yet another anaphoric moment of potential failure. Diwan’s realism extends to the offhand glimpses we are given of other similar though untold horror stories, with tragic outcomes. Mme Rivière washes her instruments in boiled water to sterilise them, rather than disinfectant, remarking: ‘bleach in a uterus. And you wonder why they die.’

Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening

Happening is rendered political by its received context more than its literal content. Diwan stages no debates over ethics, methods, efficacy or regulation. French abortion policy is condemned by implication only; its effects are clearly inhumane, cruel and unlikely even to prevent abortions as intended. Happening is instead about the visceral body horror of something growing inside you that you do not want there – and the shockingly obliterative effects of forced birth on women’s lives. Anne describes herself as having ‘[t]he illness that strikes only women and turns them into housewives’. The terms are apocalyptic; pregnancy is literally ‘the end of the world’ for Anne. The toxic patriarchal combination of abortion bans and a society in which mothers are siloed from economic and creative participation in society makes birth a life-altering, even life-ending, event.

As Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, ‘Nobody is moved to ruminate on the rights and wrongs of the situation.’ There is a far greater sense of urgency from Anne, to save herself from a terrible fate, while the barrier to action is legal, not personal or moral. Lane writes that the film’s ‘pragmatic’ morality is entirely ‘grounded in a universal terror of breaking the law’. Anne’s friend Brigitte is so terrified of going to prison that her sympathies for one of her closest friends are neutralised, and she keeps her distance in an act of self-preservation. Yet when Anne’s roommate Olivia is forced into complicity, by cutting the umbilical cord, we see the anguished calculations momentarily playing out on her face – balancing shock, horror, and fear of prison – before empathy nullifies legal or moral concerns in favour of the pressing need to assist and provide care in that moment.

Happening shares the same focus on the dehumanising nature of abortion restriction that 2020 US abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always charts. The latter film is set in a country where, at the time of making, abortion was theoretically protected by law. Yet access is rendered expensive and often out of reach, the title evoking the bureaucratic maze of invasive questionnaires that the system demands are answered. In Happening though, the French state is not so much casually cruel in its abortion restriction as outright ignoring the very idea that abortion could be a debate. The result is maddening and alienating – forcing Anne to keep secrets from anyone she cannot entirely trust.

The film works hugely effectively as a contemporary parable about the necessity of reproductive healthcare, as well as a chronicle of a unique period in history. The 1963 setting makes the events feel all the more acute, a time of increasing social sexual pressure not yet matched by availability of birth control or abortion. In many ways, 1963 is a darkly apt mirror of the present day; social pressures remain, just as reproductive healthcare comes under attack from the religious right – especially in America. The grim consequences of such an inchoate sexual revolution – yet to take significant mainstream notice of female pleasure – are depicted in the warped logic of Anne’s male acquaintances. One friend, Jean, tells her that ‘There’s no risk if you’re pregnant’, during his bid to seduce her. Yet, Diwan purposefully hard cuts from his claim to one of Anne’s friends inspecting a mark on her body, suggesting it could be syphilis. By the end of Happening, Diwan arrives at a more nuanced and optimistic view of sexual pleasure, though there remains huge risk when health problems are met with stigma and hostility by the medical establishment.

Perhaps Diwan’s primary theme in Happening is freedom – implicitly asking what it is and how it can be achieved. She documents a society in transition where entrenched beliefs and norms are in flux. Such a shift in intergenerational perspective is evident in one scene where Anne speaks to her mother, who reprimands her by saying: ‘Can we afford to do what we feel like?’ In the mother’s remarks rings the sound of a life unfulfilled. The film clearly prompts us to ask: why not? It is an appeal to the utopian and liberatory which still seems apt now.

Anamaria Vartolomei and Sandrine Bonnaire in Happening

Happening continues to mull the words of Anne’s mother and Jean. While Diwan’s initial juxtaposition makes clear the fallacious logic of there being ‘no risk if you’re pregnant’, it seems to lodge in Anne’s mind, culminating in a stunning sequence in which Anne leverages her pregnancy’s unique silver lining – the protection from conception at least – to have passionate, pleasurable sex without inhibition. From the way she stares, quietly wide-eyed, at her roommate’s demonstration of masturbation on a pillow, Diwan seems to encourage us to deduce that the (off-screen) sex which began Anne’s pregnancy was far from satisfying or pleasurable. Thus, Diwan builds on Ernaux’s coolly retrospective yet tense narrative to add an oasis of joy into its grim, panicked crescendo. It lends a fantastic texture to the film – a catching of breath before the ordeal of the two abortion attempts, which will almost cost Anne’s life.

One of Happening’s defining themes is that of arbitrariness. So much hinges on the kindness of individual doctors within the system. The film shows us three. One is deliberately duplicitous, in prescribing drugs to undermine Anne’s efforts. Another is merely kindly, rather than actually kind. He makes no show of pretending the pregnancy is good news and the line ‘Accept it. You have no choice’ is read with the somewhat good-natured empathy of a man who feels his hands are entirely tied, despite the crushing effect of those words for Anne’s autonomy and future. A third doctor appears, blurrily out of focus and almost entirely unseen, at the film’s ending. Anne lies bleeding on a hospital trolley, and he is asked to make a snap-verdict on her condition which will define the rest of her life. One word from will save her from years in prison. ‘Miscarriage,’ he says.

The palette of the film seems to subtly darken as the film progresses, yet after this it flashes to white as the image swims and fades out. Upon her recovery, everything seems brighter.

In the memoir Happening, Ernaux describes her experience of abortion as defined by ‘clandestinity’, arguing that her story is still worth telling, even though such clandestine experiences are ‘a thing of the past’ due to the legalisation of abortion (in France, and in many western nations). However, the repeal of Roe vs. Wade in America epitomises the many regressive steps that can and have been taken. Ernaux characterises the memoir as a reckoning with a major life experience, and she is convincing in her argument that her story should not be shrouded by a ‘veil of secrecy’ – nor should she ‘remain silent on the grounds that “now it’s all over.”’ Yet two decades on from publication, Happening is a shocking personal tale with sweeping contemporary relevance. It is not only testimony of the past’s cruel bureaucracies but a warning that abortion is unpreventable; all that can, and should, be stopped are the harms caused to those forced to carry foetuses to term against their will. The film’s structural anaphora maps onto a far broader trend. This is one personal iteration of a story that happens again, and again, and again.

Happening

Directed by Audrey Diwan, Screenplay by Audrey Diwan, Marcia Romano and Anne Berest, Based on L’événement by Annie Ernaux, Cinematography by Laurent Tangy, Edited by Géraldine Mangenot, Music by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine, Starring Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Sandrine Bonnaire, Louise Orry-Diquero, Louise Chevillotte, Pio Marmaï, Anna Mouglalis, Fabrizio Rongione, Luàna Bajrami, Leonor Oberson

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