Movie Review: Happening (L’événement)

Though two generations of American women have grown up believing that their reproductive rights were sacrosanct, that all changed in June when the Supreme Court there overturned Roe v. Wade. Now, many GOP-led legislatures are rushing to pass new laws that either ban or severely restrict a woman’s right to choose. Just last week, Indiana became the first US state to enact an almost total ban on abortion. I don’t know if local film distributor, Edko Films, had this in mind when it decided to release the French film, HAPPENING, here in Hong Kong now but the move couldn’t have been timelier.

HAPPENING tells the story of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a 23-year-old literature student in Normandy who, when she learns that she is pregnant, embarks on a harrowing journey to end it. The time is 1963 and abortion is not just illegal in France, it’s spoken about in whispers and hushed tones with only the most trusted of friends. As the weeks tick by, Anne finds herself becoming more isolated with no one to confide in. With very few options available to her and her dream of becoming a writer slipping away, she turns to increasingly desperate and dangerous measures to abort the foetus.

HAPPENING is based on the novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux, which was published in 2000 – nearly 40 years after “the event” took place. Like Anne, Ernaux is the daughter of simple grocers and had a provincial, Catholic upbringing. Ernaux studied literature in university where she had ambitions to become a writer until she found out that she was pregnant.

Second-time director Audrey Diwan, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Marcia Romano, doesn’t hold back showing audiences what Anne goes through on her journey. If you ever believed that women who submit themselves to either self-induced or backroom abortions are not putting their lives at serious risk, this film will set the record straight. Diwan wisely opens the film offering up few clues as to when the story takes place. Until Anne’s doctor confirms her year of birth, the time could just as easily have been 2023 as 1963.

Vartolomei, who has had limited movie experience until now, is delivers a powerful perfofmance as Anne, showing the character’s vulnerability but determination not to let this event destroy her future. The actress won the Most Promising Actress award at this year’s César Awards in France and the Shooting Star award at this year’s Berlinale — both well deserved.

HAPPENING premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last September where it took home the Golden Lion for Best Film. It opens here in Hong Kong today (August 11th) and it’s also available on some streaming platforms in other markets. Although it can be harrowing, its relevance to current events makes it well worth watching.

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