DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for Audrey Diwan‘s Happening.

Did you know abortion didn’t become legal in France until January 18, 1975? Of course, before that, women didn’t have access to safe abortions, seeking any means necessary to abort fetuses. Physicians didn’t believe in doling them out, and you couldn’t even mention the word without those around you fervently shushing you for fear of eavesdroppers. Imprisonment loomed on the horizon for women who had abortions.

Diwan’s Happening derives inspiration from author Annie Ernaux‘s novel L’Evénement and her real-life experiences in the 1960s as a young woman trying to get an abortion when it was illegal. In 1963, the protagonist, Anne Duchesne (Annamaria Vartolomei), pursues different avenues after becoming pregnant from a one-night stand. Anne is a brilliant student with a bright future, so she fights tooth and nail to ensure nothing derails said future. 

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Happening is utterly unflinching, uncompromising and bold, especially with its imagery. There are shots in this film seldom presented in movies. They’re graphic but essential. 

Still of Annamaria Vartolomei in Happening; movie review

Pictured: Annamaria Vartolomei in HAPPENING

Laurent Tangy‘s unique camerawork brilliantly shows us the world through Anne’s eyes. Each shot is carefully crafted through closeups on Anne’s face and intriguing angles featuring her body, putting her lack of societal autonomy on display as she fights for control. The cinematography showcases soft, whimsical hues juxtaposed with the severity of the subject matter. 

Anne encounters her fair share of sexist and misogynist male characters, valid to the time. From hearing from a doctor that she doesn’t have a choice to a classmate coming onto her because she’s pregnant, Anne endures toxic masculinity aplenty. 

Happening successfully evokes a feeling of isolation through its imagery and dialogue, depicting Anne’s lonely journey while she carries this secret by herself because of the law. Her unwavering resilience to seize control of her future illustrates the grimness of what it means not to have access to safe abortions. Anne frequently tells people, “I’ll manage,” which is every woman’s timeless war cry.

Exploration of this subject is rare in a film, especially one solely dedicated to it. Happening never shies away from the heaviness of abortion, from the emotional and physical implications to societal consequences. It’s a powerful, relevant movie, notably in today’s climate, as women still fight for the rights they deserve. It shows us we’re one law away from witnessing women suffer from unsafe, dangerous procedures like Anne did almost 60 years ago. 

Still of Annamaria Vartolomei in Happening; movie review

Pictured: Annamaria Vartolomei in HAPPENING

The film’s color palette is eye-catching, with many baby blues and bluish hues. Anne’s clothing, in particular, is almost exclusively baby blue. Perhaps this choice conveys Anne’s innocence as a young woman in an unfamiliar world. Sure, she’s sexually active, but there’s so much beyond her bubble that she doesn’t understand. It represents a child thrust into the harsh realities of adulthood. 

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Annamaria Vartolomei delivers a bracing, gripping, no-holds-barred, piss-and-vinegar performance. She portrays Anne as a nuanced, courageous woman railing against worldly constraints. While the film’s dialogue aptly conveys the misogyny and sexism of the time, we get the real gut punches between the lines, with Vartolomei hitting us the hardest with her portrayal. 

Happening is thought-provoking, making you wonder how far we’ve come on destigmatizing and providing widespread access to safe abortion. You’ll leave feeling uneasy, with certain moments treading uncomfortable territory. This film sticks to your insides and sits with you long after the credits roll. It’s brazen and daring filmmaking at its best. 

Happening hits theaters in the US on Friday, May 6. 

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Melody McCune
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