“Every month a girl tests her luck and dies in extreme pain”
We’re in France and it’s 1963; Camus is dead but Sartre is still alive, Western involvement in Vietnam hasn’t yet started but neither has the May Revolution, the culture of the time will live on for the next seventy years but individual rights are one-hundred-and-seventy years in the past – abortion remains extremely illegal. Life in southern France remains a binary, you are either professional or you are not.
Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) finds herself on the frontier between the two; with her mother’s constant presence behind the family’s bar, her father’s toil in the café and her peers’ conversation of callusing factory work a daily reminder of what failing her upcoming university entrance exams would entail. Anne has all the hallmarks of a professor, with a winning combination of drive and intelligence, and has been noticed as such; but there’s a problem, Anne is pregnant.
The one hundred minutes of Happening’s (L’événement) run time are spent excruciatingly balanced on the razor-thin threshold between life and death. Anne’s baby, her professional dreams, her youth, and ultimately her life are balanced on a tightrope, where absolutely everything is a breath away from desolation, and the wind seems to only be getting stronger.
Some have accused Audrey Diwan’s second film of miserabilism – we must assume these people have no experience trying to obtain an abortion in 1960s catholic France – but this undoubtedly shows Happening’s strength and persuasiveness. Repeatedly told she has no choice, and unable to tell almost anyone of her predicament, Anne’s lack of agency is palpable. But inaction is not a possibility, the life of a housewife and domestic servility is the end result of carrying on in line with the State’s wishes. So when Anne eventually confides in her doctor, he makes the choice very clear to her; she either accepts this new life now, or she turns to the black market and risks absolutely everything, not just a prison sentence, but her life too. If such a choice isn’t miserable, then few things are. And so, it’s only right that Diwan leans right into this misery. Afterall, despite its fetishization – not least by fans of French cinema – the sixties were hardly a great time to be a woman, being seventeen and carrying the weight of an unwanted pregnancy notwithstanding.
Despite the dreadful weight of the subject matter, and despite a couple particularly excruciating scenes which I, and everyone else in the cinema, struggled to watch (and make me seriously question the 15 certificate it’s been awarded); I really enjoyed Happening. It is about as technically watertight as you can imagine, but more than this, it is also extremely watchable and human. Although you may get the impression that there is little joy to be had here, and those of us familiar with the work of Annie Ernaux (upon which this is based) may certainly have this worry; this is thankfully not the case. The comradery and chemistry between Anne and her friends is lovely, which alongside their relatable position as students creates a thread of joy and prevents the weight of everything else from becoming totally suffocating. Such moments of joy and humanity allow Happening to be not just a difficult watch, but a rewarding and at times delightful one too.
The presentation adds to this much-needed joy throughout the 100-minute run time. Taking advantage of a beautiful 35mm film stock, similar to that used by Paul Thomas Anderson in Phantom Thread, Diwan and DP Laurent Tangy make the late springtime light in Southern France look especially beautiful – creating frequent moments of fleeting escapism from the characters’ internal chambers of tension and anxiety. It also is just a much-appreciated escape for those of us stuck in stubbornly wintry Glasgow. The music though has the opposite effect, effectively complementing each stage of the film; be that though the deafening Elvis tracks during the opening soiree, or the anxious Greenwood-esque compositions which heighten the ever-increasing tension as Anne’s pregnancy progresses.
Equally, Diwan’s considerable experience as a screenwriter allows Happening to avoid the frequent pitfalls of realist cinema, and remain continuously engaging throughout – preventing it from becoming a lethargic French trudge which it very well could have. The frequently recurring title cards informing us of each advance of Anne’s pregnancy work towards the driving pace, while the mise-en-scène allows her to dodge the overuse of exposition while efficiently adding detail to the period
and Anne’s predicament. So often there would be a quick and subtle scene, where nothing is said, but the gravity of Anne’s situation and the oppression of her time are reinforced – a shot of her sifting through volumes of her library’s encyclopaedia, trying to learn about her reproductive system, comes to mind; reminding us that medical expertise was largely gatekept and reliable information was dreadfully scarce.
But beautiful visuals, a fantastic score and a tight script would do nothing for a high-stakes, high-emotion drama such as this, if the central performance was no good. But as you might’ve guessed by now, that couldn’t be further from the case. Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance is just sublime. The emotional intensity of the world-crushing stress of Anne’s situation feels totally authentic; with Vartolomei playing perfectly to each scene’s register, from her cold distance and offness around her family to her unrelenting ardour and excruciation from certain key points later on. The various accolades Vartolomei has been picking up recently are more than deserved.
Happening is absolutely essential. Despite winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, it is unlikely that Diwan’s film will see the monumental theatrical success of 2019’s winner Joker, or even that of last year’s winner, Nomadland. The handful of particularly difficult scenes, combined with its unfortunately relatively limited release will likely prevent Happening from attaining the audience it deserves here in the UK – outside the usual cinephile commentariat – which to my mind is a massive shame. Audrey Diwan presents an argument so deafeningly persuasive that only the most ideologically blinded zealots will fail to be both moved by Vartolomei and convinced of the screaming urgency of universal reproductive rights. Even if Happening does make Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always appear like a simple trip to the city, do not be discouraged, this is not a film to be missed.
[Marc Jameson – @marc.jameson]
[Photo credit: happening film.com]