No matter where you come down on the abortion issue, Happening is a film worthy of your time and consideration. Everybody has an opinion on the subject, whether pro-life, pro-choice, or – less likely, given the polarizing nature of it – somewhere in the middle. The movie has a clear perspective, but no overt political messaging, opting instead to simply follow one young woman who becomes unintentionally pregnant and feels abortion is the only viable option for her. Taking that personal approach allows viewers to see things through her eyes, to powerful effect.
The story is set in 1960s France, a time when abortion was still illegal in that country. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a smart student with a bright future. Her period is overdue and her stomach appears to be getting slightly bigger. She goes to see a doctor, who asks if she's had sexual intercourse. Anne denies it, but of course she's lying, because it's quite obvious to the doctor that she is pregnant. Later, she confesses to her friends that she was intimate with a guy she met briefly. Now her ability to complete her education is in jeopardy.
Abortion seems like the sole reasonable choice. Anne goes to one doctor for guidance, only to have him recommend a medication that's unhelpful. She attempts to perform one on herself. That doesn't work either. A friend puts her in touch with a woman who can assist, although everything has to be done in total secrecy. As it's pointed out, the possibility of jail time is very real if something goes wrong and she ends up needing to go to a hospital, where a doctor could report her to the police.
Roger Ebert famously said that movies are a machine that generates empathy. This is the strength of Happening. Director Audrey Diwan takes a clear-eyed look at the subject by putting us in Anne's shoes and letting us go through the experience with her. We can draw our own conclusions. At times, the film is quite harrowing. Seeing the character endure procedures outside of a controlled medical environment is almost as uncomfortable for us as it is for her. We come to care about Anne deeply, so regardless of whether or not you approve of what she's doing, you want the best for her.
Much of that is due to Anamaria Vartolomei's stunning performance. The actress makes us realize something crucial – Anne is afraid. She's afraid that her life and education will be derailed by a responsibility she is not prepared to take on. Vartolomei guarantees that her character's fear is palpable for us. The importance of that can't be overstated. Happening and its star allow us to vicariously feel that kind of worry, and by feeling it, we perhaps understand it a little better, a little more deeply than we did before. It's an essential reminder that abortion is not just a concept, it's a real and difficult thing that a percentage of women have to grapple with.
It should be emphasized that Happening doesn't pull any punches when it comes to showing the stark realities of abortion procedures performed outside of legitimate clinics or hospitals. Three scenes, in particular, are difficult to watch. The film deserves to be seen, though. Abortion is a major issue in our society. Having a movie depict the factors in and around it realistically provides much-needed illumination. Your opinion may or may change after seeing Happening, although I guarantee you'll have lots to think about either way. Insightful and humane, it's an essential work for this moment in time.
out of four
Happening is unrated, but contains adult language, nudity, and graphic depictions of abortion. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.