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Review: Happening

Glasgow Film Festival Exclusive

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Amid a recent slew of women-directed abortion dramas including the likes of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Unpregnant, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Happening, Audrey Diwan’s Golden Lion-winner, which has just had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, stands out as a uniquely scarring experience. Like those other films, its protagonist, Anne (Annamaria Vartolomei), seeks to terminate an unwanted pregnancy so that she might live a life that is entirely her own. Unlike those films, she undertakes her journey without help. Set at a time when abortions are punishable with prison time, Anne is isolated by her community, resulting in a tension that quickly turns visceral: while the watchful eye of French society attempts to tear her down, she quietly — and stupendously — remains stalwart against it. 

As Anne, a steely-eyed French university student in 1963, Annamaria Vartolomei commands the screen, imbuing her character with quick-witted intelligence and an unbending resolve. For a young woman stuck in unspeakable circumstances, these are essential virtues to have: no sooner does she reveal her pregnancy to her friends Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) than they abandon her, worried that they might be implicated in a crime that will put them in jail. Worse still, a male friend in their group mistakes her pregnancy for sexual willingness (he horribly suggests, “If you’re pregnant, there’s no risk”).

Yet even as the world turns against her, Anne’s commitment to an independent life persists. Failing to receive aid from fear-stricken friends and duplicitous doctors, she resorts to personal, and eventually black-market methods. Several scenes of intimate, unfiltered agony — of a kind usually reserved for the body horror genre—punctuate the film, all the more unbearable due to the film’s stark realism. As difficult as these moments are — and they are among the most squirm-inducing I have ever experienced — one is always left with a clear sense of purpose. Like the films of the Dardenne brothers, from which Happening clearly takes inspiration, the onscreen horrors are never without reason. 

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Indeed, just as the graphic nature of these scenes build to a nigh-unwatchable apex, the film returns to a sense of the political made viscerally personal. The film’s penultimate scene — which is so physically wrenching I nearly gagged — contains an image as powerful as the cinema could hope to attain. Yet for all its sickening discomfort, Diwan wisely and expertly counterbalances the debilitating social circumstances that brought Anne here in the first place. Like the best social realist cinema, Happening displays its subject unflinchingly, exposing a politically divisive situation with clarity of vision and piercing empathy.

Happening is being screened by Filmhouse as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Image courtesy of DeuxPlusQuatre via Wikimedia Commons.