Review: In ‘Happening,’ a riveting abortion drama

May 3, 2022, 8:09 AM | Updated: 8:58 am

This image released by IFC Films shows Anamaria Vartolomei in a scene from "Happening." (IFC Films ...

This image released by IFC Films shows Anamaria Vartolomei in a scene from "Happening." (IFC Films via AP)

(IFC Films via AP)

“Happening,” Audrey Diwan’s Golden Lion-winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is set in 1963 France but the period detail isn’t prominent. Instead, it’s an abortion tale that feels as though it could it could take place in many places, long ago or today.

It’s filmed in square-like academy ratio and it’s as if the edges of the frame are closing in on Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a smart literature student — maybe even a brilliant one; we see her define “anaphora” without hesitation — who is shocked when a doctor informs her that she’s pregnant.

This is 12 years before abortion would be legalized in France and Anne’s predicament is immediately urgent. “Do something,” she tells the doctor, who replies that it’s impossible, “the law is unsparing.” For Anne, her apparently first sexual encounter threatens to derail her life just as it’s getting started. She comes from a working class background. Her parents — and most of all Anne, herself — have high expectations for her.

“I want to continue my studies,” she tells another doctor. “It’s essential for me.”

Films from Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” to Eliza Hittman’s “Never Sometimes Always Rarely” have captured the human toll of systems that give women little choice when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. What distinguishes “Happening,” Diwan’s second feature film, is, overwhelmingly, her and Laurent Tangy’s tightly composed cinematography and Vartolomei’s riveting, steely performance. To a remarkable degree, “Happening” is viscerally connected with its protagonist, closely detailing not just her navigation of social taboos and restrictions but capturing her unapologetic determination. It’s a movie about abortion, yes, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale about a woman’s resolve.

“Happening,” which opens in select theaters Friday and expands afterward, is based on the 2001 memoir by celebrated French author Annie Ernaux, who framed her ’60s experience as it was recalled decades later by sifting through old journals and memories. Diwan’s film has no such framework, instead preferring to stay rigorously close to Anne’s experience as it’s unfolding. Abortion is to even her friends an unspeakable subject; just the hint of promiscuity is enough to make her nearly an outcast. In one frightfully vulnerable scene, classmates confront her in the shower for being “loose” while they and she are naked.

It’s a fittingly staged scene because in “Happening,” there’s no intimacy or pleasure for Anne’s body. It’s a battleground. When she’s asked for her reading of Louis Aragon’s “Elsa at Her Mirror,” Anne describes the poem’s war references. And she, too, is in a kind of war, with seemingly no one on her side, desperate for help — or at least for some honesty. Anne grows increasingly isolated but also hardened and defiant. Diwan films her clinical encounters at length and, in a film where no one wants to say the truth out loud, “Happening” culminates in Anne holding back screams of pain because the walls are too thin.

“Happening,” an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for disturbing material/images, sexual content and graphic nudity. In French with subtitles. Running time: 100 minutes. Three stars out of four.


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at:

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

              This image released by IFC Films shows Anamaria Vartolomei, left, and Sandrine Bonnaire in a scene from "Happening." (IFC Films via AP)
              This image released by IFC Films shows Anamaria Vartolomei in a scene from "Happening." (IFC Films via AP)
              This image released by IFC Films shows Anamaria Vartolomei in a scene from "Happening." (IFC Films via AP)


(Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS...

Associated Press

Florida police search for 3 gunmen who wounded 9 at crowded beach on Memorial Day

Police are responding to a shooting near the beach broadwalk in Hollywood, Florida.

2 days ago

Crew members assemble the main stage ahead of the 2023 Scripps Nations Spelling Bee on Sunday, May ...

Associated Press

Exclusive secrets of the National Spelling Bee: Picking the words to identify a champion

As the final pre-competition meeting of the Scripps National Spelling Bee's word selection panel stretches into its seventh hour, the pronouncers no longer seem to care.

2 days ago

FILE - Gabby Petito's mother Nichole Schmidt, wipes a tear from her face during a news conference o...

Associated Press

Mother of man who killed Gabby Petito said in letter she would help son ‘dispose of a body’

The mother of the man who killed Gabby Petito told her son in an undated letter that she would “dispose of a body” if needed because she loved him so much, according to copies of the note shared publicly for the first time this week by attorneys for Petito's parents.

5 days ago

A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, places flags in front of e...

Associated Press

5 things to know about Memorial Day including its controversies

Memorial Day is supposed to be about mourning the nation’s fallen service members, but it’s come to anchor the unofficial start of summer and a long weekend of discounts on anything from mattresses to lawn mowers.

5 days ago

FILE - This artist sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, left, as he test...

Associated Press

Officers describe chaos, fear on Jan. 6 as judge weighs prison time for Oath Keepers’ Rhodes

Police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and public servants who fled the mob's attack told a judge on Wednesday that they are still haunted by what they endured, as the judge prepares to hand down sentences in a landmark Capitol riot case.

6 days ago

Pride month merchandise is displayed at the front of a Target store in Hackensack, N.J., Wednesday,...

Associated Press

Target on the defensive after removing LGBTQ+-themed products

Target once distinguished itself as being boldly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.

7 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Desert Institute for Spine Care

Spinal fusion surgery has come a long way, despite misconceptions

As Dr. Justin Field of the Desert Institute for Spine Care explained, “we've come a long way over the last couple of decades.”

(Photo: OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center)...

OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

Here’s what you need to know about OCD and where to find help

It's fair to say that most people know what obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders generally are, but there's a lot more information than meets the eye about a mental health diagnosis that affects about one in every 100 adults in the United States.

(Photo by Michael Matthey/picture alliance via Getty Images)...

Cox Communications

Valley Boys & Girls Club uses esports to help kids make healthy choices

KTAR’s Community Spotlight focuses on the Boys & Girls Club of the Valley and the work to incorporate esports into children's lives.

Review: In ‘Happening,’ a riveting abortion drama