The scarlet letter

Past tense, present tension in "Happening"

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HAPPENING Still 1
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Fi

France, 1963. Three young women enter the club. Inside, they’re having a party, dancing to the music. The Cokes are in the icebox; rock ’n’ roll on the radio. The place is packed with students, the current occupation of the three women who lead us in. They are Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigette (Louise Orry-Diquéro). They are close, but slowly the camera separates Anne from the trio and settles on her. She is the focus of Happening’s misfortune, and that misfortune is that Anne is pregnant.

Strike that: Anne’s misfortune is not that she is pregnant, but that she isn’t ready to be a mother, and abortion won’t be legal in France for another 12 years. In 1963, no one even wants to speak the word. They know if Anne is caught trying to get one, she’ll be sent to prison. They also fear—and not without valid concern—that they, too, will be locked up for assisting in such things. Even suggesting a name to ask for or a number to call scares them. As one doctor, one of the more understanding characters in the story, bluntly puts it: Anne has no choice in the matter.

Adapting Annie Ernaux’s 2000 memoir, writer/director Audrey Diwan brings Happening to the big screen when the debate over a woman’s right to choose has hit a new low. Happening does not enter into this conversation superficially, choosing instead to depict the labyrinthine realities and horrifying possibilities of a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy—be it self-induced or in back allies—in the absence of state-sanctioned health care. Prohibition laws seldom change behavior; they just make it easier for bad actors to impose their morality.

Vartolomei excels as Anne. The movie rests almost entirely on her shoulders and all the words she doesn’t say. Once she learns of her pregnancy, she closes herself off to her friends and her mother (Sandrine Bonnaire) as she searches for a solution. Only in the sanctity of a doctor’s office does she give an insight: “I’d rather like a child one day, but not instead of a life. I could hate the kid for it. I may never be able to love it.”

She just wants agency, after all. Agency over her hopes and dreams, agency over her desires and urges, agency over her own body.

Instead, she gets none. Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy relentlessly pursue Anne as she searches for a way out. Even the frame around Anne, 1:37 Academy ratio, constricts and confines her. And when Anne does find a woman (Anna Mouglalis) who can perform the abortion, Diwan and Tangy refuse to turn the camera away or cut. If Anne must undertake this, then so shall we. It seems only fair. The story of Happening is what happens in secret when the right to choose is eliminated. The how of Happening is that none of this should be secret. 

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