Happening review – cleverly structured and impeccably produced abortion drama | Movies

huhThere’s a brutal Handmaid’s Tale from our recent European past: a situation that still persists in many parts of the world, longed for by reactionary nostalgists elsewhere. Happening is director and co-writer Audrey Diwan’s admirable French drama that won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival; it’s an impeccably produced film, somewhat old-fashioned in its heavy emotional message, adapted from an autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux.

The setting is provincial France in 1963, just before the permissive society and the pop culture revolution – and certainly before the legalization of abortion, which only took place in France in 1975. Newcomer Anamaria Vartolomei plays Anne Duchesne, a very talented literature student who in one scene stuns her professor and classmates by knowing what “anaphora” is. Her hard-working mother and father, Gabrielle and Jacques (played by Sandrine Bonnaire and Eric Verdin) run a bar, and Gabrielle is endlessly proud of her daughter, who at one point gave her some money and said, “Buy yourself a novel! “

But Anne is pregnant. With increasing suppressed panic, she waits for her period and repeatedly writes “nothing‘ in her diary. Her future is about to be destroyed, but even if you ask for an abortion, you risk jail time for you and anyone who helps you — or doesn’t charge you. Anne’s escalating fear of the hostile entity in her body reminded me of the mood in Rosemary’s Baby (written and filmed at about the same time). Satan need not be the father to a woman to feel disgust and shame, and to the male authorities of medicine and law to make it clear that she is guilty of a terrible sin, from which the men are mysteriously exonerated.

Diwan’s film is cleverly structured so that at first we don’t know who the father is, and there is no scene showing the moment of conception. The drama mimics Anne’s own sense of denial, her own refusal to remember or imagine the disaster. What we get instead are clinical inspections that function as chilling parodies or inversions of that sexual intimacy that turned her life upside down. We see Anne undressing and checking her heartbreakingly spotless underwear for signs of a menstrual period; we see her lying half-naked and submitting to an examination by the stern male doctor who disdainfully puts aside Anne’s shy protestations of virginity and makes the diagnosis.

And Vartolomei’s controlled, focused performance shows us Anne’s ordeal, as she just carries on as she tries to decide what to do: go out with her friends, go to lectures, surreptitiously look at anatomical dictionaries in that pre-web world. She mustn’t tell anyone that she was, in fact, catapulted forward into that grim secret future of female submission.

Happening takes a different approach to abortion than a movie like, say, 2004’s Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake or 2007’s Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which focused on the abortionist with a more ironic chill; this is about the pregnant woman herself. One of the film’s most startling scenes comes when Anne’s flirty (yet virginal) roommate Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) shows her and their calm, watchful friend Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) that the sexual position she’s heard is the best. : she sits astride a pillow and starts to wave. While Hélène looks at Anne in shock, Brigitte starts to moan with closed eyes, apparently forgetting that someone else is there. What does Anne think: that Brigitte is naive? Or that this is indeed pleasure, the pleasure that destroyed her life? Maybe she thinks Brigitte doesn’t yet know the price to pay for this pleasure: or maybe Anne is jealous of her misery, remembering how little pleasure and how little sexual expertise went into her own unsentimental upbringing.

Happening hits theaters on April 22.

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