Review by Sean Boelman
When it came time to submit a film for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, France got it down to three options: the Palme d’Or-winning Titane, the Golden Lion-winning Happening, and Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. And while the former ended up with the submission, Audrey Diwan’s Happening is without a doubt the best of the bunch.
The movie tells the story of a bright student in France in the 1960s who is forced to seek out an illegal abortion when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. Films like this have become a subgenre of their own in recent years — Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant being the most mainstream examples — but Diwan’s movie is perhaps the most harrowing of them all.
Much of the film plays out like a thriller, as the protagonist struggles to find the medical treatment she needs before it is too late. And the movie does feature some shockingly graphic depictions of some of the processes involved, but this is part of what makes the impact of the film so visceral.
Of course, the political aspects of the movie are strikingly relevant even though it is set in France in the 1960s. It’s horribly depressing to see what this character is going through, especially as many young women are facing similar issues in our own country today. And the screenplay pulls no punches in terms of skewering the system that caused these events to take place.
The film is based on Annie Ernaux’s novel, which is in part inspired by her own experiences. And the movie maintains that feeling of intimacy and honesty that comes with a semi-autobiographical work, making the emotion of the film resonate all the more deeply. The movie will leave viewers feeling absolutely shaken.
Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance is absolutely stunning. The amount of vulnerability that she brings to the role is just captivating. If there were any justice, she would be in the conversation for awards, but international performances often only break out from the showier pictures. But that does not reflect the incredible strength of her turn.
The film is also extraordinarily well-shot. The crisp cinematography is often absolutely gorgeous, and creates a feeling of warmth in the first act, only for everything to be ripped away in the rest of the movie and replaced with some of the most disturbing images there are to see. This feels like a film made by a filmmaker who has been working for years, not a sophomore effort.
Happening is without a doubt going to stick with viewers long after they finish watching it. Although the movie does feature some very graphic imagery, it is used effectively and does not feel cheap or manipulative in any way.
Happening screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually January 20-30.