Review: Happening

The Japan distributors of Audrey Diwan’s 2021 Venice Golden Lion winner are probably patting themselves on the back for having waited so long to release Happening in Japan, since Annie Ernaux, the author of the novel on which it’s based, won the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s the kind of PR boost you can only pray for, but I hope that viewers intrigued by the pedigree of the film understand what they’re in for. Ernaux’s story, presumably autobiographical to a certain extent, since almost all her work is, is about a young woman’s quest to undergo an abortion in 1963, when the procedure was illegal in France. Even talking about it could land you in trouble with the authorities. Ernaux and Diwan make this aspect the main thrust of their story, which is both painfully personal and sociologically relevant, even to our own age. 

Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is studying literature at a university in a conservative town in southwestern France, aiming to advance to a graduate program, when she discovers that she is pregnant. Understanding that being a single mother would effectively end any of her career ambitions, she is desperate to be rid of the embryo, but has nowhere to turn. Bolder than her fellow female students, who seem resigned to following the usual domestic track after graduation, she is curtly told by a much older doctor to get lost when she indirectly brings up her wish. And while the doctor who previously told her of her pregnancy sympathizes with her plight he refuses to even discuss her options lest he not only lose his license but go to jail. Anne, of course, cannot possibly talk about it to her parents, tavern owners who are proud of their daughter for being the first person in their family to attend university. And when she finally reveals her condition to her two best friends in the dorm, one of them immediately cuts her off, as if she were a leper trying to touch her. 

Diwan does not reveal the father of the child until well into the film, and while this man feels an obligation at first he conveniently uses Anne’s pugnacious attitude to justify his failure to find a solution. In a sense, Anne’s downward spiraling circumstances—Diward marks each successive week of pregnancy with a title card—come to feel as if they comprise a societal conspiracy against her, and for the first half, at least, the dialogue has an over-determined quality that seems designed to explain everything in unmistakable terms. Moreover, while the boys are predictably mercenary in their behavior—once rumors spread, Anne’s male classmates all hit on her—the narrative takes surprising turns, as when one potential boyfriend, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), after also unsuccessfully trying to get into Anne’s pants becomes something of a savior by hooking her up with an underground abortionist. It’s then when the horrors really begin, and Diwan is unflinching in her depiction of the process, which seems interminable. More than anything, Happening underscores the contradictory attitudes that even the most liberal-minded person can have about pregnancy and abortion. Anne is not only cruelly isolated by her situation, but made to pay an unbearable price for it. 

In French. Opens Dec. 2 in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Marunouchi Toei (03-3535-4741).

Happening home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Rectangle Productions – France 3 Cinema – Wild Bunch – Srab Film

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