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Audrey Diwan’s Happening

A masterful visceral film on abortion

Happening is a film adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s novel of the same name—an autobiographical memoir about her illegal abortion in 1960s France.

Written by


Sep 21, 2022

© 2022 IFC Films. All rights reserved.

Comparable in its impact to the oppressive horror of Darren Aronofsky, the imagery is the opposite—visually calm, real and sometimes documental in its approach.

The camera is close to the protagonist Annie (Anamaria Vartolomei). So close, as if a mere breath could reveal our spectatorship. We first follow her to a party where she and her friends exercise themselves in getting the most daring out of their wardrobe in a sexually repressed prevailing morality. As the camera remains close to her, we see the stares of the other students. Men who want to seduce her and Women giving disapproving looks. Anne, we learn a short time later, is well on her way to graduating with a degree in literature. Getting pregnant would be the end of the world, one of her friends tells her unknowingly, but that’s what happens after a not-shown night with a politics student from distant Bordeaux. Thereafter, through the immediate closeness, there is a sense of fear slowly growing inside her, and her world threatens to crumble.

Recurring intertitles showing the passing of time—"2 weeks", "12 weeks"—resemble a time bomb that threatens to explode if measures are not taken quickly. As a result of the constant closeness of the camera, it creates a spatial, sensual unease. The closeness as a continuous element causes us to experience every moment of the anxiety. There is nothing embellished and nothing needs to be dramatised in its horror. Diwan creates a resolutely honest vision that is anchored in the solitary moment.

It is within these that we experience the implications of moral concepts that are dogmatically lived and never questioned. The irritation of the immense closeness fades as the form’s imagery becomes invisible in favour of an increasingly emotional sensitisation that is constantly in process. Like a shadow, the camera clings inseparably to Anne, but despite its effect, it does not impose itself upon the spotlight. Just as the form, the sound refuses to allow any trace of sentimentality. The few, short and almost eerie sounds heard are less melodious than sounds foreshadowing a doom that might as well have come from an Ari Aster horror film. The brightness of summer makes the contrast between the mundane and the inner disruption even more apparent.

© 2022 IFC Films. All rights reserved.

“I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life.”

— Anne played by Anamaria Vartolomei

Accompanying this is the acting of Anamaria Vartolomei, who has to lead the film and who succeeds in doing so. It's not the performance of immense suffering that happens here, but the wonderful and at the same time imperceptible play on a small scale, that of suppressed suffering. Sitting together at the table with their unaware parents, they cannot stop themselves from laughing about the radio programme. Her brief smile in the face of the weight bearing down on her and her embrace with her mother, without being able to explain her suffering, seems to be able to express so much beyond words.

Two poems, recited by her teacher, become the verbalisation of what this unwanted pregnancy means. The first is the poem Elsa at the Mirror by Louis Aragon, which, behind the surface of a love poem, speaks of France at war. Soon after, we see Anne looking at herself in the mirror, the pregnancy and the child not a symbol of love but a war against her own body. Finally, the poem that closes the film is by Victor Hugo—La Sortie. Addressed by the teacher to the entire class, we see nothing but Anne’s face while feeling a sense of understanding for her for the first time.

Nurtured by her personal misery and opposed for selfserving motivations, the film nonetheless carries the question beyond and gives us an understanding of the essence and profound longing for equity. The silence and isolation transforms into the substance of a movement.

In the discrepancy of silence lies the brilliance of Happening: with the outward silence, in that no one is allowed to know of her pregnancy versus the inner war within her. So too is the repression of this inner war and the desire to cry out for help. Diwan does not want to give answers to moral questions, she just shows—relentlessly honest and fearless.

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