Jessica considers the heavy thematic weight of this French drama concerning a young student and her unwanted pregnancy.
Content warning: Abortion
Audrey Diwan’s film Happening follows the story of literature student Anne Duchesne who seeks to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in early 1960s France when abortion was illegal. The film is based off of Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel which the film takes its title from. Diwan and Ernaux collaborated on the script, layering their stories to make a cinematic collage of female experience which is grounded in personal, bodily experiences, but also speaks to a universal reality.
Diwan’s main departure from Ernaux’s text is her inclusion of scenes of female pleasure, including a homosocial masturbation scene where Anne’s friend Brigitte teaches the protagonist how to orgasm. These brief glimpses of sexual freedom pepper the film in short orgasmic bursts, offering a slight relief from the work’s main theme of gendered sexual oppression.
The film evokes an intense feeling of claustrophobia in both its subject matter and form. From the offset, Anne has limited options of how to resolve her situation. All of her choices lead to a form of imprisonment; possible incarceration if she is caught attempting, or seeking, to abort her baby, or domestic entrapment if she has the child and therefore has to sacrifice her academic career to become a mother. Anne at one point refers to her pregnancy as “that illness that turns French women into housewives”. Throughout the entire film, the camera remains close to Anne’s body. The audience experiences her journey from only a very slight distance, which fosters a voyeuristic intimacy with the protagonist’s struggle.
Happening is a story about the body, taking the form of a corporeal thriller and at times, horror. Diwan masterfully achieves the impression we have seen, in brutal detail, all that has happened to Anne’s body, despite not actually being shown. We simultaneously see everything and nothing. When the protagonist harrowingly attempts to abort the foetus with a knitting needle for example, we are not shown the process but rather Anne’s pained facial expressions. Her body becomes a text that the audience reads. We are forced to see the suffering in her face, to look into the eyes of the victims of anti-abortion legislation.
The film is a slow-burner. The panic and claustrophobia slowly build and culminate with the tragic consequences of Anne’s visit to a backstreet abortionist which causes both a foetal miscarriage, and her near death.
This story is not a new one, but it comes at a time where abortion rights are still being debated and curtailed by governments across the world. It contributes to a crucial dialogue about the consequences of denying access to safe, legal abortions. Although it is set in 1963, it has an eerie resonance with today.
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