In Audrey Diwan’s L’Evénement, translated as Happening, literature student Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) tries to get an abortion in France during the 1960s. As abortion is illegal at this time, with strict consequences for everyone involved, this is no easy feat. We follow Anne in her attempt to obtain an abortion, while she also juggles attending university full-time.
For those living in the United States, Happening feels particularly poignant. It’s impossible to separate Anne’s search for a safe abortion provider from the recently leaked Supreme Court draft of a decision that might overturn Roe v. Wade. In a time and place 60 years ago and 6,000 miles away, it’s shocking how much the movie had an impact on me, as I considered the harrowing circumstances. Anne has no support from anyone in her life: not her doctor, friends, or family. Although she keeps her pregnancy a secret from almost everyone in her life, her two friends, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and Hélène (Luana Bajrami), rejection haunts the rest of the film.
Brigitte’s rejection of Anne, where Hélène seems only shocked, soon turns to revulsion. Where they have no issue with Anne having a reputation of being a ‘loose’ woman beforehand, the news of Anne’s pregnancy is too far for Brigitte. Hélène eventually comes back to Anne after sharing that she had a month-long fling with an older man in the past but was lucky enough not to get pregnant. While Anne never specifically asks for an abortion throughout the movie, her actions and gestures well imply her intentions.
The framing of each shot is gorgeous. The colors are muted and nostalgic in a typically indie style, fitting perfectly with the setting. With less saturation, the movie is realistic and grounded against our own experiences. For our cinema savants, this film heavily uses medium shots, so the audience focuses more on the gestures and expressions of those in the frame. We see the impact of this choice in each abortion attempt. For me, it was especially poignant when she tried to attempt the abortion herself with a barely sterilized knitting needle in her bedroom. The camera stays focused on her facial expressions, even while the sounds of her pain and movement can still be heard. It’s an incredibly devastating, intimate shot of a desperate young woman.
Happening is on the slower side of movies, which prolongs Anne and the audience’s stress about her lack of success finding a safe abortion provider. With no help from the father of the child (a Political Science student from Bordeaux), Anne is on her own in every aspect of her journey. When her primary care physician refuses to help her, she goes to another doctor who provides her with a prescription that strengthens the fetus instead of aborting it, as she was told. At the end of the movie (when she’s just about 12 weeks pregnant), Anne finally finds a safe provider, through her ‘friend’ Jean’s (Kacey Mottet Klein) friend, Laetitia (Alice de Lencquesaing). Abortion is expensive: 400 francs in 1960 would be equivalent to $1,184 today, give or take. For a young student, this price is almost too much for Anne – she has to sell her belongings in order to afford it. The abortion provider is a middle-aged woman, known only as Madame Riviere (Anna Mouglalis). We never learn her name or where she learned to perform the operation, but Anne goes to her twice for an abortion. While the first attempt through this provider was unsuccessful, the second was dangerous, for various reasons.
Anne has a fever, sweating and crying out because of the pain, so much so that another classmate comes in to check on her. Although in previous scenes, Olivia (Louise Chevillotte) was accusing Anne of being a ‘loose’ woman and a bad influence on other students, in this scene, she helps Anne without a second thought. When the abortion works, Olivia helps Anne cut the umbilical cord (in a particularly graphic scene – it is not for the easily squeamish viewer) with scissors from her dorm room. Consequently, Olivia calls for help, which leads to Anne being taken to the hospital. We learned from Laetitia that being taken to the hospital can be very dangerous. If the doctor labels the abortion as a miscarriage, the woman is safe. But if the doctor labels it as an abortion, and the woman lives, she’s imprisoned for violating the law.
Happening is a harrowing story based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel. Despite the nostalgic film style and otherwise vivid symbolism throughout the movie, Happening is not a film to watch lightly. It’s something that changes you afterward, no matter your opinion on its quality. And what excellent quality it was. Put this one in your queue after watching documentaries on abortion and you’ll be sure to see first-hand of difficult it was, and maybe will be.