What do I label it?
I’m not saying you can’t create a film as unflinchingly raw as Audrey Diwan‘s L’événement [Happening] without having a true-to-life source, but the starting line is surely closer when you do. Not only did Diwan and co-writer Marcia Romano have Annie Ernaux‘s memoir of what happened forty years prior to draw upon, they also had the author herself to talk with and glean additional context to ensure the authenticity of a twenty-three-year-old literature student discovering she’s pregnant weeks before her final exams in 1963. This isn’t therefore how someone thinks that ordeal unfolds. This is how it did unfold for Ernaux and many others in a nation without legalized abortion. And with news about Roe v. Wade being erased, experiencing that terror has suddenly become vital once more.
The film takes us through the psychological turmoil forced upon young Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) by a patriarchal government refusing to let her decide what’s right for her own body. She says it best when discussing with her doctor (a man who seems sympathetic to her plight despite not being willing to risk his career or freedom—anyone who has or facilitates an abortion faces jailtime—to help): she wants to have a baby one day, but not at the expense of her own life. That’s what’s at stake. Bringing this child to term ultimately means sacrificing the promising education and art Anne and everyone who knows her believes she’s destined to create. Because of the law, however, she’s left to manage an untenable situation on her own.
At one week she anxiously looks at her underwear in hopes of seeing blood. None is there. At two weeks she returns home to visit her family doctor in hopes of discovering she has a health issue causing the discomfort and lack of menstruation. He tells her she’s pregnant. Who can she turn to next? Another doctor? Maybe. If she can find one who won’t sabotage her efforts. Her family? Not when they’re too busy running a business to engage their daughter in a real conversation beyond “study hard.” Friends? Just broaching the topic causes Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) to freeze. She doesn’t even want to joke about the subject in case someone overhears and throws her in prison. And the one person she can ask can’t be trusted.
His name is Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein) and he’s known for getting around. Maybe he’s had to help someone he’s gotten pregnant before? Maybe he knows someone who has? What will it cost, though? When does friendship cross a line into manipulative and exploitative quid pro quo? Desperation becomes the only thing Anne can count on and it culminates in the form of a knitting needle. Because what opponents refuse to acknowledge is that the one objectively undeniable life impacted by an abortion is the mother, not the fetus. Just because you outlaw the procedure doesn’t mean she won’t find another unsafe way. But those same supposedly “god-fearing” souls don’t believe in giving addicts clean syringes either. Punishment is their goal. They gleefully kill through legislation.
That judgment is mine. Diwan commendably puts none in herself, knowing it would turn the film into a “message movie” disregarded sight unseen by those who should see it. By presenting the facts in their graphic and nightmarish detail, she allows Happening to be a litmus test instead. Will you watch what Anne endures and come out saying she deserved the pain? Or will you exit the theater sick to your stomach that governments could ever willingly push women so far into a corner that they’d risk their own lives to escape the burden being unjustly thrust upon them? Do you join in the chorus of Anne’s classmates calling her a whore? Or do you rightfully place the blame at the feet of the man who impregnated her?
Know then that Diwan pulls no punches in that aim. She may not “show” the most harrowing moments close-up, but she puts us in the room to experience Anne’s excruciating discomfort when trying to perform an abortion on herself and when finally finding someone to do it for her (Anna Mouglalis‘ wonderfully pragmatic yet obviously affected Mme Rivière). That physical duress isn’t everything either. There’s also the emotional torment of seeing those Anne thought she could count on turning away and the heavy weight of shouldering the uncertainty of her future once the weeks move from two to six to twelve without any answers. We watch this woman full of life and confidence transform into a husk of nerves and rage. And the entirety of France is complicit.
Vartolomei is revelatory in the role. She toes the line between tragic and empowering in a way that makes it hard to believe the Romanian actor has so few credits to her name beyond short films. The rebellious indifference when trying to let her mother know something is wrong without being able to say it. The betrayal when those she hopes to lean on show their true natures. And the instantaneous shift from solitary frustration to pure empathy when Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) does the opposite by showing her truth to be one of compassion and understanding sans judgement. Vartolomei’s Anne is put through the wringer from start to finish as the onus and responsibility of what comes next is passed onto her by everyone else. And for what?
Chastity? Superiority? The school setting reveals all the strings behind laws that criminalize things like abortion. The blatant misogyny is exposed by friends, enemies, and teachers alike with constructive and crucial dialogue between allies getting shrouded in shadows as though between spies at-risk of being snatched from the street. That is the danger, though. One wrong word can ruin everything. One scream can bring the police through your door. One doctor’s choice to advocate for his/her politics over his/her patient can turn a moment of relief into despair with the flick of a pen. Threats lurk everywhere for women until there seems to be no escape while the men for which these pregnancies can’t happen without simply walk on by with carefree attitudes and wide-open futures.
 Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’ in Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING. Courtesy of IFC Films.
 Louise Orry-Diquero as ‘Brigitte‘, Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’, and Luàna Bajrami as ‘Hélène’ in Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING. Courtesy of IFC Films.
 Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’ and Sandrine Bonnaire as ‘Gabrielle’ in Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING. Courtesy of IFC Films.