“Happening” is body horror in every sense, but the true revulsion lies in how easily it all could’ve been avoided. In a world without choice, the body under siege becomes a battleground for a young heroine determined to take back ownership at any cost, and the grisly results have reportedly caused some men to faint at screenings.
Joan Didion famously wrote, “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” A rough paraphrasing could also be translated to “Happening,” since French liberalism apparently didn’t apply to simply existing as a woman in France in 1963.
Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a talented, ambitious young university student who is the great hope of her working class family, but (rightly) fears her life will be derailed after she discovers she’s pregnant. Her world may be devoted to the study and intellectual analysis of literature which includes the likes of Hugo, Camus, and Sartre, but there’s also a strict code of conduct, and harsh reminders for anyone who comes close to violating it. To even mention pregnancy to her friends is to bring talk of the end of the world, or when she’s desperate enough to reveal her true circumstances, jail time.
As Anne’s desperation and isolation grow, the steps she takes escalate to increasingly bloody extremes, some of which involve knitting needles (brace yourself for that scene). Even other methods, revealed via whispered conversations in the dark of night, may appear safer and more professional, but nevertheless carry the risk of hospital complications and imprisonment if a single doctor deduces that her pain is the result of an abortion rather than a miscarriage.
In such an unsparing world, there’s little safety in the usual comforts of fiction or mere speculations of history repeating itself as forces gather to strip women’s access to abortion. Based on Annie Ernaux’s memoir, it took her forty years to write about her experiences, which were so traumatic Ernaux described still feeling the pain in her body when she finally decided to tell her story.
No doubt much will be made of the fact that Audrey Diwan became inspired to write and direct “Happening” after she herself had an abortion. But Diwan’s true inspiration seems to be how the body can keep the score decades later. Hindsight is always the ultimate benefit when delving into the past, but Diwan never loses sight of Anne as the complex individual she is, keeping the entirety of her person in the literal picture even when her womb is the focus, or when she decides to fuck a good-looking guy and at least get some real pleasure in between looking for a way out of her predicament.
If Diwan stumbles once, it’s in declining to fill in audiences less familiar with Annie Ernaux’s impressive career as a writer after all is said, done, and barely survived. If putting pen to paper is one of the last sounds we hear, as if to reassure us of a long, rewarding life for a promising young woman who will make lauded contributions to history, the later beeping of a hospital monitor serves as a reminder and warning of just how easily Ernaux’s career and very life could’ve been cut short before it truly began.