‘Happening’ Film Review: ’60s-Set Abortion Drama Rings True to Current Zeitgeist

Director Audrey Diwan uses social-realist technique to bring the audience into the heroine’s struggle to navigate a labyrinth without a map

IFC Films

This review of “Happening” was first published May 5 before the film’s opening in NYC and Los Angeles.

Rarely has there been a narrative film that feels more current than “Happening,” a French drama about the trials of a young women attempting to get an abortion — in 1963.

Audrey Diwan (“Losing It”) based her second film, the top prize-winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival, on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel of the same name. Though this is one woman’s story, Diwan (who cowrote the script with Marcia Romano) directs it with an urgency that makes clear: it could be anyone’s.

Well, not anyone, of course. But certainly anyone who finds herself pregnant without access to safe and legal abortion, which is the case for Anne (an excellent Anamaria Vartolomei). Until the moment her calendar reveals the unavoidable truth, Anne is no different from her best friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), who spend their days studying literature in college and their nights flirting with boys at the local club.

But once Anne realizes how long it’s been since her last period, her entire world contracts. The morality of the day is so constrained that she feels obliged to tell her gynecologist that she’s still a virgin. She lies to her anxious and overworked mother (Sandrine Bonnaire), who runs a bar and has no time to imagine her daughter’s unthinkable worry. As for her classmates, they still have the freedom to accept and enforce what she cannot yet see: law, culture, and medicine have united to deem her unworthy.

Once she no longer reflects on others in a positive way — as a patient doctors can treat, a student teachers can impress, a friend who effortlessly fits in — she becomes useless. And as the weeks pass with terrifying swiftness, she realizes that she is truly on her own.

Diwan’s fly-on-the-wall direction, echoed by Laurent Tangy’s ultra-tight cinematography and the production’s naturalistic lighting and sound, draws us into the suffocating immediacy of every passing day. Diwan has noted that she was inspired by the films of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and there is a similar sense of liberal social realism here. We are sharing Anne’s experiences, rather than watching them from a distance.

This empathetic approach also minimizes the remove that might arise if “Happening” truly felt like it was set 60 years ago. It actually feels very modern, without a visible emphasis on nostalgic details. That said, the pop music, brief moments of dreamy beauty, and earnest debates about Camus vs. Sartre — not to mention multiple scenes of young women jostling for physical and emotional space in crowded communal showers — remind us that we are, indeed, visiting mid-20th century France.

“C’est pas juste,” Anne insists, as one moment after another is decided by people who don’t care about or even consider her needs. She’s right, of course; nothing about her situation is fair. Judging, shunning, shaming; anger, fear, pain — this is the language of Diwan’s story. To call it a difficult watch would be an understatement; it often feels, in its stark honesty, like a horror film.

But Anne, through sheer force of will, also makes room for the vocabulary of strength and self-determination. Like Eliza Hittman’s more expansive “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” or Cristian Mungiu’s unsparing “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” — both of which also follow vulnerable young woman as they race through a maze without a map — “Happening” serves to unsettle, expose, and condemn. But also, most importantly, to honor and entreat.

“Happening” opens in select U.S. theaters Friday after debuting in NYC and LA on May 5.