Review: Happening

Setting your film in France in 1963 — between the releases of francophile and cinephile favorites Breathless and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — feels like an opportunity for romanticization. Yet with Happening, writer-director Audrey Diwan refrains from indulging in nostalgia for the time. While her French drama looks period-appropriate, she chooses not to dwell on the fashion and production design that could detract from the immediacy of the story; the filmmaker focuses on the experience of young Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), whose pregnancy threatens her future in a time when abortion was illegal in France. Though set in 1963, Happening still feels depressingly relevant in 2022.

Diwan and co-writer Marcia Romano adapted the screenplay from Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the dialogue and Vartolomei’s nuanced performance reinforce the personal impact of laws like France’s abortion ban. When we meet Anne, she’s a bright student with a promising future. She studies hard and wows her professors with her insight, and she has plans for a career that will take her beyond her working-class roots. After a missed period and unexpected symptoms, a male doctor confirms she is pregnant, but he refuses to help when she asks for a way out so she can continue with her studies. He warns of the consequences — prison if she’s caught and death if the abortion goes wrong — but Anne tries every path she can to try to end the pregnancy. Weeks tick by, and her options grow fewer and her panic rises higher. 

The original French title is L’Evenement (literally “the event”), but calling it Happening makes it seem current by the nature of the word — which it is. France has only just expanded its legal abortion limit to 14 weeks, with President Emmanuel Macron still expressing his opposition. In the United States, Roe v. Wade will almost certainly be overturned by the Supreme Court this summer. This isn’t just history; it’s frighteningly present for people with uteruses who are already basically denied abortion in large swaths of the country and can’t travel to a state that is more supportive of their right to bodily autonomy. It’s a reminder that banning abortion doesn’t stop it from occurring — but it stops it from being safe for the pregnant person. 

Happening is unflinching in its depiction of an illegal abortion. I, however, was not. I flinched multiple times and looked away when the camera refused to do so, with long takes that reflect all of Anne’s pain, fear, and discomfort as her desperation forces her to take risks. Happening is classified as a drama, but it occasionally resembles a thriller. Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s score adds even greater tension and a sense of urgency as title cards chart the pregnancy in weeks. The life Anne had hoped for begins to slip away with each failed attempt and each passing day.

Despite its singular focus, Happening isn’t just about abortion — just as the issue of abortion often isn’t purely about abortion, but instead the ability to control people’s bodies and lives. The abortion ban doesn’t only rob Anne of the choice about what to do with her pregnancy; it also limits what she can choose to do with her whole life. She feels trapped: if she has a child in her early twenties, it will irrevocably alter her path. Becoming a mother limits her to that identity, removing the option to be anything else, especially in the 1960s (though it’s often not much easier now). 

Despite its decades-ago setting, Happening has never been more relevant, particularly for audiences in America. Diwan’s drama serves as a warning of what people may experience if Roe is overturned. It will literally set us back half a century, a world that Happening depicts as harrowing and restrictive. 


Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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