Louise Orry-Diquéro, Anamaria Vartolomei, and Luàna Bajrami in a scene from “Happening.” (Photo courtesy IFC Films)
Not Rated. In French with subtitles. At the AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Landmark Kendall Square.
Films about young women seeking to end a pregnancy, a more urgent subject today than ever, come with a built-in countdown. This was the case with a horrific Romanian drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007) by Cristian Mungiu and the merely alarming, more recent American entry “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020) by Eliza Hittman. The same is true for the harrowing and tense French period film and Venice Golden Lion winner “Happening” directed and co-written by Audrey Diwan. Set in the late 1950s, when abortion was a crime with a prison sentence in France, the action begins with a trio of young women preparing to go to a local dance party where some of the attendees would include, not only the usual students, but also young firemen. Helene (Luana Bajrami) is dark and withdrawn. Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) is the “boy crazy” one with the imposing figure. Anne (a powerful turn by Anamarie Vartolomei) is the gifted, whip smart student.
The daughter of a couple who own a small, drab, but profitable Paris bar, Anne is a standout student who nails a teacher’s questions about a poem by Louis Aragon and who is about to graduate and go to university with plans to become a teacher, although she secretly yearns to be a writer.
Anne shows signs of distress when her period is three weeks late. While getting an exam from her friendly, if also aloof male doctor, Anne is informed that she is pregnant, although she denies having sex. As it turns out, Anne had met a young man from Bordeaux and had a brief affair with him. Unsure what to do, Anne goes to the library to pore over an illustrated medical text about the stages of pregnancy. She genuinely wants to continue her studies, not to become a teen mother.
“Happening” is a reminder of the lengths some young women were willing to go to to end a pregnancy at a time when they did not have the right to do so. Anne’s desperation grows as each week falls away. Beginning to show a small bump, she must shower with the other girls, including a group of young women, who resent her for presumably her combination of beauty and brains. Anne needs her mother, but she knows that her mother’s beliefs will offer her no alternative. At a crucial turning point in the postwar world, Anne remains stranded in the sexual dark ages. In a particularly awful sequence to watch, she excruciatingly tries to end the pregnancy herself and fails. Finally, a fellow student tells her of a woman who “helps” other women. But Anne must pay a large fee, which she raises ironically by selling her precious books outside the university. If Anne ends up in the hospital, everything depends on what a male doctor decides. Was it a failed abortion or a miscarriage? Her life could be ruined.
BAFTA-nominated director Diwan does a fine job keeping the tensions high. Vartolomei is devastating as the young woman, who is accustomed to working out her own problems, facing a problem she can’t work out. In the third act, “Happening” turns into a horror film complete with a force that makes a horrific appearance and a beautiful victim fighting for her life, who gets a big assist from an unlikely source. “Happening” is a reminder how far we have come and how far we might go back.
(“Happening” contains nudity, profanity and gruesome images.)