New Directors/New Films 2022 presented by Museum of Modern Art and Film at Lincoln Center
The opener of this year’s New Directors/New Films showcase at the Museum of Modern Art came out of nowhere and seems to be everywhere at once. Adapted from a relatively obscure semi-autobiographical novel by the French author Annie Ernaux, Happening (2021) is director Audrey Diwan’s second feature. It is rare to see a foreign film emerge with such urgency. In a process which industry insiders know usually takes the better part of a year, the project was picked up by IFC Films following its debut at Venice and arrived in domestic theaters nationwide less than a month after its American premiere. True to its title, the movie seems to carry with it the urgency of an all-consuming event. Ironically, Ernaux’s novel, which bears the same name, received little fanfare when it was first published in 2000 and translated in 2001. This is a story audiences seem capable of paying attention to only selectively, a subject just as likely to be rejected as absorbed.
Happening is a deeply affecting encounter with illegal abortion—specifically Ernaux’s, which took place when she was twenty-three, in 1960s France. Seeing it in theaters was one of the most anguishing and visceral cinematic experiences I’ve had recently—and it should probably be noted that I do not possess a uterus. Diwan, together with her cinematographer Laurent Tangy, uses every available technique to align our perspective with that of young Anne (the formidable Anamaria Vartolomei). Often, we are locked in just over her shoulder, the rest of the world in soft focus. The way we follow her on her sojourns, or whip around when she turns, implies her sense of nausea and vertigo—the subjective experience of a world closing in. This proximity, and the horrific aspects of Anne’s story we bear witness to through it, are themselves both an audacious cinematic achievement and a radical repudiation of the vagueness to which this subject is usually confined. Prospective viewers of the film should brace themselves to watch, at far too close for comfort, Anne’s backroom abortion as it takes place onscreen. The umbilical cord cuts before the camera does.
The effect is an experience approaching body horror, discordantly thrust into what should have been a hopeful coming-of-age story. At twenty-three, Anne is finishing up school and preparing for her first university exams. Though she is quiet, almost timid at times, she is clearly one of the most promising students in her class. She is also popular, the de facto leader of a tight-knit group of female friends who mutually encourage one another’s sexuality and reflexively enforce a sense of innocence none of them truly share. It takes some time for Anne to first alert them to her pregnancy, but when she tells them that the man in question was an outsider, whom she picked up at a bookstore when he was visiting their town, we believe her. It would be like Anne to deliberately engage a stranger in sex (as so many young male protagonists once did in their bildungsromans) for the almost scientific purpose of learning more about the act. She and her friends are young people who are not afraid of their bodies, though they have never been properly educated about them. As a result, their curiosity is synonymous with risk.
Diwan’s film is a faithful adaptation of Ernaux’s novel, and Ernaux does not waste so much as a sentence on shame or self-recrimination. The author’s first reaction to learning she was pregnant was to tear up the certificate, viewing it as nothing more than a sentence to poverty, ignorance, and social exile. In the movie, Anne is pregnant by the time we first see her and already surreptitiously looking for a way out. Her unwavering determination is such that we are spared much of the hemming and hawing that comprises so many narratives about abortion today—which, in their efforts not to offend, focus mainly on the plight of a woman’s struggle with her choice. Happening is the plight of a woman’s struggle with the state. Today, France has one of the most accessible abortion policies in the world, but in the 1960s it was taboo to even speak about openly. Women of Anne’s parents’ generation could remember a time when performing the procedure was still punishable by death. One of the film’s central frustrations is watching Anne, her patience growing thinner by the day, as she contorts her condition into convoluted euphemisms—her only way of broaching the subject regardless of whether she is talking to friends, her professors, or her doctors. One physician is so appalled by even an indirect reference to unwanted pregnancy that he chastises her for bringing it up. When she plaintively insists that this is the case, he prescribes prenatal nutrients, telling her that they’ll help.
Weeks slip by and Anne becomes more desperate. Her pleas for assistance to people outside her close circle—always at great risk—provoke all the wrong kinds of responses, from scorn and fear to, in one disconcerting instance, lust. At the same time, she must act as though everything’s normal, continuing to study for exams and making appearances at the after-hours student club. Anne’s background is working-class, and when she finally secures an appointment with a black market abortionist, she has to sell all the belongings she brought with her to school, telling her classmates she’s saving for a big trip.
From there, things get darker. Diwan’s film contains in its scope the full scale of impositions and indecencies placed upon a young, poor woman with an unwanted pregnancy in France at that time, but it is essential that the film culminates in the horror of the physical procedure itself—a medieval operation, which exists psychologically, outside of historical context. Because of the barbarism of the illegal procedure, the violence of that scene in Happening strikes us not only as a historical fact but also as a contemporary act. Anyone who can sit through it will learn why Happening is not only one of the finest films of the year, but one of the most essential to come about in our political era.
Happening is not a historical narrative. Though set in 1960s France, nothing about the film resembles a period piece, and the urgency of Diwan’s camera dissipates all sense of distance, temporal or otherwise. Adaptations are always a product of their time, and though Ernaux’s experience took place in another era, its realization in this film feels uniquely suited to our own. For context, a counterexample: In 1977 Agnès Varda released One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, another stridently empowered French film about abortion. Produced four years after the Roe v. Wade verdict, and six years after Simone de Beauvoir’s “Manifesto of the 343” effectively lifted the taboo of discussing abortion in France, Varda’s film is a musical paean to activism. Caravanning bohemians triumphantly proclaim the bliss of non-monogamy in verse. Watching it today is like watching The West Wing during the Trump administration—an already willful fantasy rendered cruel by the distance of its optimism. In America, at least, things have gotten worse for women since 1977.
In early May, a leaked draft of a Supreme Court ruling effectively announced the end of the period in which abortion in this country is protected by Roe. Should this verdict be officially handed down in July, up to twenty-eight states could pass laws banning or severely restricting the right to choose. Nine states are currently reviewing bills that would ban mailed abortifacients—in places where intensive telemedicine is not already illegal. The Mississippi law currently under review by the court, which five of the nine justices are expected to rule in favor of, proposes a complete ban after the first trimester. Three other states have recently proposed similar bills, and thirteen states, largely in the South and Midwest, are currently moving to enact “trigger bans”—laws which will go into effect the moment Roe v. Wade is overturned and will outlaw abortion at any stage of pregnancy, tout court. If this becomes the case, young and working-class women in 2023 will find themselves in the exact same situation as Anne in 1963, and will have to endure the psychological horrors and physical endangerments which we helplessly watch her go through. That’s what’s happening.