Go See 'Happening,' the French Abortion Drama That's a Glimpse at Our Future

The film takes place in the '60s, but it's oh so relevant to today.

happening
IFC Films

The lede of this review looked different when I started writing the piece Monday afternoon. I was going to write about how Happening was a little film that could, one that beat Oscar-nominated giants like The Power of the Dog for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last year. Then, on Monday night, Politico revealed that the Supreme Court had decided to overturn Roe v. Wade in a leaked decision written by Justice Samuel Alito. The decision would hand abortion rights back to the states, which means that in many places across the U.S. the act would be totally banned.

Suddenly, writing about a film that chronicles what it looks like when abortion is criminalized took on an entirely new meaning. This weekend, in select theaters, you can go see Happening, a film by Audrey Diwan. It's an unflinching look at one young woman's attempt to get an abortion in 1960s France, when the likely result was either death from a botched procedure or jail if caught. Diwan is bravely unsentimental in her telling of the story, and she chillingly refuses to look away when her heroine's body is pushed to extremes all for something that should be a right.

Based on a novel by Annie Ernaux, Happening centers on Anne, played with searing intensity by Anamaria Vartolomei, a driven college student studying literature. When she finds out she's pregnant she sees her future slipping away, and decides to find an abortion despite the draconian laws in place. She searches for a way to abort with the same vibrating tenor with which she formerly attended to her studies. Her quest becomes her sole focus, her dreams of an independent life slipping away in more ways than one as the academics she once excelled at elude her. Vartolomei wide, piercing blue eyes convey that determination whether she's approaching doctors who urge her to stay silent or deliberately undermine her or sticking a needle inside her body.

happening
IFC Films

By training her camera almost entirely on Vartolomei, Diwan conveys the extent of oppression at play. As the film progresses you can feel the toll the culture of silence is taking on this woman. Her friends fearlessly talk about sex but dare not discuss what happens if you get pregnant as a result of it. When Anne finally does find an abortion provider, the woman orders her to remain entirely quiet for fear of being found out. Diwan films the procedure in its entirety, and the audience witnesses it through Anne's own perspective. We see her legs twitch as the tools enter further up her uterus, her body screams in pain but she stays as mute as possible.

Though Happening takes place in the 1960s, Diwan keeps the period signifiers to a minimum. Even the fashions, though accurate, are muted: Anne's button down shirts and a-line skirts could be worn today. It lends an immediacy to the action: Yes, this is in the past, but it very well could be the present.

Abortion is still a radical act to depict on screen, whether it's Penny getting an abortion in Dirty Dancing or two girls coming to New York from rural Pennsylvania to seek legal care in Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Starting this weekend, a series of films about abortion curated by Emma Myers starts screening at the Metrograph in New York, just as Happening hits various venues. What Diwan and these other filmmakers have recognized that the work to show how abortion is vital women's healthcare is never ending.

Happening is a harrowing glimpse at life in a different time in a different country than the U.S., but at the same time it's a vision of what life will be like for countless American women in the near future. Donate to an abortion fund and go see it this weekend or as it expands across the U.S. next week. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.