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Film Review: “HAPPENING” A Gut-Wrenching Look at Illegal Abortions in 1963 France

The Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973 stated that restrictive state regulation on abortion is unconstitutional. Before that landmark decision, women were forced to either try to end the pregnancy themselves with coat hangers or when affordable, seek backstreet abortions by people who weren’t always qualified resulting in botched procedures with severe hemorraging and a staggering number of thousands of women dying each year.

 Up until last year, women had reproductive rights which meant they could choose to terminate a pregnancy.  Those rights came to a dramatic halt when Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed SB 8 into law which bans abortions if there is fetal cardiac activity detected as early as 5-6 weeks when most women don’t even know they are pregnant.  The bill set up a vigilante system where almost anyone can sue abortion providers along with those   who aid and abet in any way.  Oklahoma followed suit passing  SB 612, which was signed into law by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt.  This bill virtually bans almost all abortions except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.  This now illegal procedure is a  felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.   

Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’ and Sandrine Bonnaire as her mother ‘Gabrielle’ in Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING.

For many women who have not personally experienced an abortion, the word  is almost abstract.  I, for one, never really understood the entire procedure but I will tell you that that director Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING, (L’événement) based on an autobiographical book by Annie Ernaux, is a haunting story about a young girl’s desperation to end her pregnancy.  The riveting script, co-written by the director and Marcia Romano, is a brutal look at the personal experience of a determined young co-ed in 1963.  

The protagonist is Anne, brilliantly played by Anamaria Vartolomei, who digs deeply into her character resulting in a tour-de-force performance mastering the powerful sub-text of her character.  Anne is attending university in Angoulême with her two besties Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and Hélène (Luàna Bajrami).  She is an outstanding student and wants to continue with her studies.  I should point out that there is absolutely nothing subtle about Director of Photography Laurent Tangy’s amazing camera work.  One of many close-ups is where Anne checks her underpants for any sign of her period which is now five weeks overdue.  She finally goes to a doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) who tells her she’s pregnant and sets in motion her heartbreaking odyssey to get an abortion.  It should be noted that during this period in France, abortion is totally illegal punishable by imprisonment for the girl, the doctor who performs the procedure, or anyone who assists in any way.  Anne seeks out another doctor (François Loriquet), who gives her medication that he tells her will cause a miscarriag but she later finds out that the drug is used to actually strengthen the fetus.  Anne tries living her normal life – spending time with her friends, visiting her parents and attending classes where her concentration is marred by the overarching problem she’s facing.  Her once top grades are falling and one professor tries speaking to her to find out what’s going on in her life.  She doesn’t answer his questions and it looks like she’s going to fail her exams.  

Best friends hanging out together – L-R: Louise Orry-Diquero as ‘Brigitte‘, Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’, and Luàna Bajrami as ‘Hélène’ in Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING.

Clearly, medical relief is not forthcoming so she decides to try to self-abort and takes a long kabob skewer from her mom’s home.  We watch her sanitize it by burning it with a match, we see her lie down, and although we don’t actually see this instrument being inserted, Vartolomei’s incredible acting, along with Diwan’s direction, and Tangy’s superb camera work, we just see the top of her head and know only too well what is going on.  Anne’s attempt to abort fails and finally a friend gives her the name of a woman who performs the procedure for 400 francs.  Anna Mouglalis’ Mme Rivière is a no-nonsense business woman.  While she sterilizes the equipment, she does not wear latex gloves and blows on the speculum to cool it down.  She warns Anne that’s it’s going to hurt but if she cries out or makes any sounds, the procedure will immediately stop. Again, the camera angles down from the top of her head so we just see her legs spread apart and hear sounds of equipment being used, without actually seeing anything. However, we know from her changing breathing when the pain gets unbearable.  As bad luck would have it, the miscarriage does not occur and Anne goes back to Mme Rivière who warns her that a second procedure could be dangerous but she’s desperate, and with time running out, insists on proceeding with the second try.  Back at the dorm, the outcome is almost catastrophic as she winds up hemorraging and passes out.  Luckily one of her friends is with her and immediately calls for an ambulance where the unconscious Anne is fighting for her life.  

‘Anne’ (Anamaria Vartolomei) tries to pay attention in school, but her unwanted pregnancy totally dominates her life.

There is nothing in this intense thriller, which recently won the Golden Lion at the 78th Venice Film Festival, that is sugarcoated and although sometimes difficult to watch, I think it’s important to see one young woman’s horrendous experience back in 1963 and the sobering reality that once again women in Texas and Wyoming are being forced to go through the same backdoor, life-threatening methods.  Add to the list of governors with a neanderthal mentality is  Governor DeSantis in Florida who might be signing the same archaic legislation.    

Again, this is not an easy film to watch, but I highly recommend it as a window into one young woman’s heartbreaking but successful experience to end her pregnancy.

“HAPPENINGS” 

Director:  Audrey Diwan

Screenplay:  Audrey Diwan, Marcia Romano & Annie Ernaux

Based on the book by Annie Ernaux

Distributor: Wild Bunch

Productions Companies:  Rectangle Productions, France 3 Cinéma, SRAB Films

Producers: Edouard Weil, Alice Girard

Director of Photography: Laurent Tangy

Editor: Géraldine Mangenot

Production designer: Diéné Bérété

Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine

Language:  French with English Subtitles

Running Time:  120 minutes

Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luàna Bajrami, 

Louise Orry-Diquéro, Louise Chevillotte

Opens Friday, May 6th – The Landmark – Los Angeles 

June 21:  On Demand

Friday, May 13 – Nationwide rollout

Check your local theatres

Content Warning:  Contains sequences with graphic medical procedures

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