I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life

“I’d like a child one day. But not instead of a life,” says Anne Duchesne, in one of several tense scenes with doctors who refuse to help with her unwanted pregnancy, believing that “it’s not a woman’s choice.” This is rural France in 1963. Abortion is illegal and surrounded by silence. The word itself – a powerful taboo – isn’t uttered once throughout the film, which reflects how women seeking to understand and control their own bodies in a repressive society with scant sex education are forced to rely on superstition and coded language. Pregnancy brings shame on unmarried women and spells the end to any academic or professional aspirations. But Anne, a high-achieving student of literature – played with magnetic intensity by Anamaria Vartolomei – refuses to accept her lot.

The winner of the Golden Lion award for best film at Venice Film Festival last year, Happening is adapted from French writer Annie Ernaux’s 2000 memoir, L’Événement, an unflinching exhumation of the author’s experience of dealing with an unintended pregnancy aged 23. Using close camerawork to anchor viewers in Anne’s perspective, BAFTA-nominated director Audrey Diwan replicates the thriller-like momentum of Ernaux’s book, accentuating the urgency of Anne’s plight. However, Diwan, who read L’Événement after having a abortion herself, chose to exclude the modern reflections that intersect the book’s historic narrative, instead immersing viewers wholly in 1963. She segments the film using a week-by-week countdown of the pregnancy, so we live the ticking clock with Anne.

And what a lonely countdown it is. As Anne searches for a solution with growing desperation, far from receiving support, she is roundly abandoned: by her peers, fearing imprisonment and social censure; by her well-meaning but clueless family; by the father, a student who expects her to ”manage” the situation; by her doctors and her college.

Happening offers a campaigning, fiercely compassionate portrait of the extreme measures pregnant people are forced to take when legal abortion is unavailable

A gifted student, Anne plans to become a teacher and writer. In this rural backwater, working-class girls who don’t excel find jobs on farms or in factories, but Anne’s academic achievements buy her a ticket out of her social milieu. Yet suddenly, this bright future is in jeopardy: her grades collapse, her teachers publicly humiliate her, her parents berate her. If she can’t solve the problem – first trying in vain to self-administer an abortion with a knitting needle – in this society, what career can she have with a baby?

The film reminds us how distant, despite rising social mobility and female opportunity, the sexual liberation ushered in by the ‘Swinging Sixties’ actually was in 1963: there is little progressive thinking at Anne’s college, where she is labelled a “slut” by female peers for exploring her sexuality. She knows “they all want the same thing,” but only she is honest enough to pursue it. At socials, she behaves as she pleases, dancing with a local fireman who has gate-crashed the evening, disregarding her classmates’ snobbish hostility, which betrays their fear, envy and fascination. She turns to a male friend, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), for help, but he tries to take advantage of her, as if now she’s fair game.

It’s a sobering portrait of patriarchal repression and internalised female shame, which highlights how far we’ve come, but also how pervasive these ideas are (such language was still in circulation at my all-girls school in the 2000s). Among Anne’s fellow students, sex is both a dirty secret and universal obsession. Yet there is a sisterhood, an openness, which surfaces in private, away from social judgement: Anne’s confidante Brigitte (a charismatic Louise Orry-Diquéro) boldly demonstrates how to reach orgasm; Anne’s friend Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) shyly confesses her own affair with an older man and Olivia (Louise Chevillote) helps Anne when she finds her in agony.

The medical profession doesn’t come across well. Most doctors – all men – are united with the law against women’s choice and tell Anne to accept her fate; some even trick desperate women who solicit their aid by prescribing a drug that supposedly strengthens (rather than weakens) the foetus. Meanwhile, Anna Mouglalis plays Madame Rivière, the abortionist, with hard-faced gravity and few words. This woman is risking everything, we understand. There’s no room for softness or social graces.

Happening delineates, in visceral detail – its unsparing precision perfectly demonstrating the style for which Ernaux is known – what it means when we say that banning abortion doesn’t prevent abortions, it just drives them underground, leaving women vulnerable to cowboy practitioners and avoidable complications. For women in Anne’s situation in 1963, it was commonplace to end up in hospital, and a lottery whether the doctor decided to label their case “miscarriage” or “abortion”. The unlucky went to prison.

While the film has its share of subtle historical particulars, there’s also a sense of timelessness, which underscores our potential to regress. According to a leaked document that suggests the US Supreme Court is about to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalised abortion nationwide, millions of women in the USA could soon lose their right to abortion. This follows a series of changes in abortion laws in Republican-led US states including Florida, and has prompted angry demonstrations outside the country’s top court, as well as a torrent of media outrage. Depressingly, it shows that even in 2022 we cannot take women’s right to choose, to control their own bodies, for granted. Annie Ernaux’s experiences in 1960s France could become an everyday story in modern America very soon.

Despite heartening progress made in the Republic of Ireland, whose historic 66.4% yes vote in the 2018 referendum led to abortion’s decriminalisation, and Northern Ireland, who legalised abortion in October 2019, it is reported that Irish people are still struggling to access crucial services. And worldwide, unsafe abortion is still a leading cause of maternal deaths and morbidities. According to the World Health Organisation, around 45% of all abortions are unsafe.

Happening offers a campaigning, fiercely compassionate portrait of the extreme measures pregnant people are forced to take when legal abortion is unavailable, as well as a chilling vision of its alternative. When Anamaria Vartolomei’s sullen, impassive face is cracked open by pain at the climax of the film, her fear and isolation are devastatingly palpable. Her performance of stoicism – a woman ahead of her time, defiant in her pursuit of freedom – is exceptional. Although harrowing, Happening is essential viewing that suddenly looks horrifically timely.

Images courtesy of Wild Bunch.
Image description:
1. Anne hugs an older woman in a house. Anne has her eyes closed, while the older woman looks into the distance.
2. Anne uses a lighter to sterilize what appears to be a long pointy piece of metal, supposedly to be used to induce her abortion. The room is drenched in darkness.