‘Happening,’ Sobering — and Timely — Case for Reproductive Rights

As of this writing, it looks like the Supreme Court has decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, enabling individual conservative states to outlaw abortion as they see fit. According to a written draft of the justices’ decision leaked to Politico, all of the Court’s Democrat-appointed judges are dissenting, along with Chief Justice Roberts, the only Republican appointee crossing the aisle. In the draft, Associate Justice Samuel Alito writes, “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

Although this news isn’t a complete surprise, many thought or hoped that the Supreme Court would hold back in order to avoid accusations of partisanship. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayer has asked, “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? If people actually believe that it’s all political, how will we survive?”

For the record, Roe v. Wade has been law for nearly half a century. And a reported 69% of Americans believe it should remain so. 

Many of us don’t remember life before Roe (I was just 10 when it was passed). But, Happening, a new drama from French writer/director Audrey Diwan spells out, in no uncertain terms, the tragedy and trauma that used to accompany unwanted pregnancy.

Happening is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux. It has been lauded at international festivals, and won the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s highest prize, beating (by a unanimous vote) Oscar nominees Dune, The Lost Daughter, Spencer, and Power of the Dog.

Anne, played fearlessly by an exceptional and luminous Anamaria Vartolomei, is a dedicated literature student in 1963 France. She’s counting on her education to help her escape her family’s provincial life. A brief encounter with a visiting student and a missed period — “Rien toujours!” she scribbles in her diary — set off a desperate and, by necessity, solitary race against time.

The first doctor Anne visits confirms that she’s pregnant, but refuses to do anything for her. “You can’t ask me that,” he says. “Not me, not anyone. The law is unsparing. Anyone who helps can end up in jail. You too. And only if you’re spared the worst. Every month a girl tries her luck and dies in atrocious pain. You don’t want to be that girl.” While he’s mildly sympathetic to her situation, he eventually advises her, “Acceptez.” 

A second doctor seems to be willing to help, but betrays her trust. A street-smart male classmate uses her condition as a lever for a hook-up. “If you’re pregnant,” he tells her, “It’s safe.” The father of the child is uninterested. She cannot confide in her parents. Even her professor, not understanding why his best student has suddenly withdrawn, berates her. “Teachers know other teachers,” he tells her, “But I guess I was wrong.”

Anne does have two close girlfriends. One, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), has studied her brother’s pornography and proclaims herself  the world’s “most knowledgeable virgin,” demonstrating it by straddling and gyrating into a pillow. But, when Anne finally tells her chums about her situation, Gabrielle changes her tune. “It’s not our problem,” she snaps, warning their mutual friend not to help. “Want to go to prison with her?”

Anne’s only ally, found for her, surprisingly, by the student who tried to coerce her, is a young woman who has already had an abortion. She advises Anne, explaining that it’s very painful, but then it’s over. And, she offers to lend Anne the money she’ll need for the procedure. Anne declines, selling her beloved books and a gold necklace instead. “Why are you selling your things?” someone asks her. “I’m going to travel,” she responds.

As Anne counts the weeks that go by with a growing sense of horror and dread, she risks arrest (or worse), first with an injection, then with a pair of skewers stolen from her parent’s bar, and finally with a back-alley abortionist (played by glamorous French star Anna Mouglalis). What is most striking is not the pain or the blood (both of which are unflinchingly shown) but her sheer isolation.

Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy make the most of shadows and dim lighting, creating a murky dream state through which Anne wanders by herself. Nudity is graphic but somehow matter-of-fact, reinforcing how little control Anne now has over her own body (and how comfortable the French are with onscreen nakedness). Vartolomei’s performance, throughout, is astounding.

That said, Happening is particularly tough to get through. Diwan and her star don’t just show you Anne’s journey, they take you along for the ride. As her time and options run out, the film becomes more of a thriller than anything else. And, you share the growing hopelessness Anne feels. The movie can’t have a happy ending — a strong message to those who opposed or currently oppose legalized abortion — it’s a struggle of survival. Anne wants children some day, but not at the cost of her own life. She wouldn’t be able to love the baby if she had it.

When Anne’s professor is left alone with her after class, he asks if she’s been ill. “Yes,” she tells him. “The illness that strikes only women. And turns them into housewives.”

In a recent interview, Diwan explained to The Guardian, “People asked me, ‘Why make this movie now,’ when abortion is legal in France? But, what happened in France is still unfortunately the case in many countries. And while I was making the film, I learned what was happening in Texas, where they were challenging Roe v Wade, and then people’s reactions changed completely. They started saying it was good to make this film now, that it was necessary.”

Anyone who lived through the second wave feminist movement and fought for Roe v. Wade back in the early 1970s would agree — and find reason to be disheartened by today’s headlines. Seventeen states have already introduced or passed abortion restrictions ranging from total bans, heartbeat laws, and abortion pill restrictions, to criminal penalties for providers and bounties for those who report procedures.

Over the past six years, some of the images that emerge from women’s marches most often are of older protesters holding signs that read, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this crap.” Some are in wheelchairs; some have walkers. Some use more colorful language, but the gist is the same. 

Countless Annes on both sides of the Atlantic might be surprised too.

Happening is currently showing in select movie theaters.


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