Laws change and social attitudes shift but some issues never lose their inherent controversy. For many, abortion comes top of that list, fraught as it is with division and emotion and regardless of personal opinions and perspective. Bringing it to the cinema screen requires delicacy, understanding and sensitivity, something that director Audrey Diwan brings right to the fore in Happening, her Golden Lion winner from last year’s Venice Film Festival, an understated drama set in the 60s that, beneath its quiet exterior, is a howl of rage and anguish on behalf of young French women from the era.
Student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) has a bright future: a dead cert to pass her exams and go on to university, she’s the apple of her parents’ eye and has a group of supportive friends. But she wouldn’t win a popularity contest with some of the other students: her indifference to boys is like a magnet to them and it’s given her something of a reputation – an undeserved one. Finding herself pregnant comes as a hammer blow. She’s determined it won’t stand in her way of completing her studies, but nobody will listen to, let alone entertain, her plans not to keep the baby. Abortion is illegal, with prison awaiting anybody who either performs or procures one. Her options are severely limited.
These are the days before the Pill. Contraception became legal in France in 1967, with abortion laws passed in 1975: in the UK, ‘67 was also the year that contraception made available on the NHS, and the abortion law came into effect in 1968. Doctors, according to one that Anne visits, don’t believe that such things are a woman’s choice and for educated young women with ambitions, pregnancy is life- changing, something to be feared, dreaded and avoided at all costs. In the words of one of her friends, “it would be the worst thing in the world.” In the 12 weeks covered by the film, Anne undergoes the gnawing fear of having her secret discovered, along with humiliation, possible failure at college and physical anguish.
She does confide in a select few about her pregnancy but never, never her parents. Quite apart from the potential outcomes that go with her determination to end her pregnancy, having a baby outside of marriage comes with shame and disgrace. While Anne could put on an outward show of rejecting convention, it’s doubtful that her loving, small town parents could. There’s no mention at any stage of the attitudes on show emanating from the church, although the inference is there: this is a time when the Catholic Church wielded significant power in France, although by the end of the decade it was distinctly on the wane. Anne (a superbly defiant yet vulnerable Vartolomei) simply can’t bear to hurt her parents and, when the father of her baby isn’t prepared to stand by her, she takes matters into her own hands. Literally. Her increasingly desperate – and painful – efforts are agonising to watch.
Diwan doesn’t hold back in these moments, but they’re never gratuitous. The scene between Anne and stony faced back street abortionist Madame Riviere (Anna Mouglalis) – no Vera Drake innocent, she – is filmed over the girl’s shoulder, so we see her body shudder, the grim instruments and the older woman’s methodical, almost robotic, way of working. Anne’s face isn’t on show and, as we join her in wishing the whole gruesome process was over, we can see more than enough to feel what she’s going through. It’s not the only time that we wince on her behalf, experience the cold sweat of her fear and shake our heads in disbelief that this was happening a mere sixty years ago.
For a supposedly modern society, its attitudes were still in the 600s. The combination of history that is both recent and outside the experience of some of the audience, plus the director’s empathetic but dignified approach, results in a piece of cinema which is compelling, harrowing and, at times, shattering. And, lest we think we should congratulate ourselves for coming a long way, a look at 2020’s indie hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always will raise depressing doubts about the current American experience. Come for Happening, but watch them both.
Drama | Cert: 15 | UK cinemas from 22 April 2022 | Picturehouse Entertainment | Dir. Audrey Diwan | Anamaria Vartolomei, Sandrine Bonnaire, Anna Mouglalis, Kacey Mottet Klein.