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Review: Happening 'L’événement' (2021)

Audrey Diwan’s Happening is a simple film. Set in 1960s Paris, the story focuses on heroine Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), who leads a seemingly unremarkable life as a 20-year-old student trying to pass her entrance exams for university. The costumes, setting, and actors themselves are unglamorous, almost plain. When one thinks of it, it’s almost strange that Diwan’s no-frills approach is directed toward the magnanimous subject of abortion. This, however, may be the point.

Content Warning: Abortion, blood, self-mutilation

 

Audrey Diwan’s Happening is a simple film. Set in 1960s Paris, the story focuses on heroine Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), who leads a seemingly unremarkable life as a 20-year-old student trying to pass her entrance exams for university. The costumes, setting, and actors themselves are unglamorous, almost plain. When one thinks of it, it’s almost strange that Diwan’s no-frills approach is directed toward the magnanimous subject of abortion. This, however, may be the point.

Adapted from Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical memoir of the same name, Happening is an incisive exploration of reality. The prohibition of abortion, as Diwan observes, is “a period in our history which is rarely depicted”. Her minimalistic approach to the topic doesn’t sensationalise or understate abortion; it normalises it. Thus, Diwan plays a critical role in de-stigmatising the female body in art and society.

The film is characterised by extreme intimacy. Shot exclusively in a 1.37 ratio, Anne is quite literally the centrepiece of her story - Vartolomei’s pale, round, girlish face illuminates the screen. Wherever she goes, we go. So, we are taken on a journey from spacious school halls and bars at night to doctor’s offices and a back-alley abortion clinic. However, we spend most of our time in bedrooms and bathrooms, where Anne sheds her stoic exterior. Always on the go, Anne is almost forever unsmiling and never laughing. But behind closed doors, we can see Anne’s fretful self-examination; there are frequent shots of Anne gazing into the mirror at her face and body. When Anne is confronted with her pregnancy and its issues, her exterior and interior become one. There is never any internal dialogue, but we do not need one to understand Anne’s innermost thoughts.

The female body itself is almost its own character. Female nudity is often shown on-screen. ‘Happening’ opens with Anne and her friend Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) in their bras. The film and its director refuse to censor: “The other grand subject of the film – one that is very important for me – is carnal pleasure.” said Diwan.

Happening revolves around the dichotomy of women’s pleasure and women’s pain.

 Anne’s first attempt at self-inflicted abortion recalls Karin’s self-mutilation in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972). Karin, like Anne, is trapped in a society that suppresses a woman’s wants, and she cuts her genitals with a mirror shard in an act of defiance that is simultaneously an act of self-denial - of sex, of pleasure. Anne is also forced into a compromise; she puts her body through incredible pain. The camera reveals every gut-wrenching second as she inserts a poker into her vagina in an effort to burst her embryo. Although this is the film’s most confronting scene, we are far from finished as spectators of the brutality endured by Anne’s body. At the film’s climax, we see her writhe in agony after finally miscarrying her baby and being hospitalised. The sight of her blood pouring out onto her white sheets is shocking because it is the first and only time blood is shown in the film. Indeed, the absence of blood throughout Happening is interesting to note and suits the film’s deterrence from exaggerated melodrama.

Diwan also rejects the sensationalising of sex and sexuality. Anne and her friends are playfully provocative but never vulgar. Brigitte, in particular, both freely expresses and suppresses her sexuality. She admits she rifled through her brother’s guitar case for “dirty magazines” and brags, “I’m the most well-informed virgin on the planet”. Alongside her daring is thoughtful pragmatism: “They call me a tease, but do I have a choice? Every night I dream of going farther.” In a society that demands sexual innocence or to face the consequences, sex and sexuality must be pragmatic.   

There is little room for sentimentalism because Anne is running out of time. We are never allowed to forget this because the film is divided into the weeks leading up to her exams. The passing of time, like the rest of the story, is bluntly portrayed, with white text on-screen signifying each week. Fortunately for Anne is her seemingly innate grit - Diwan and Vartolomei nicknamed her “the little soldier” - enabling her to waste no second over contemplation. Though Anne is told that her hands are “not used for work”, she gets them dirty more than once without flinching.

Due to the no-nonsense of its heroine and its approach, it would be inappropriate to call Happening an “emotional”, “inspiring”, or “devastating” film. Diwan has produced what can be called a realistic, historical, and, as Ernaux put it, “a truthful film”. We are given through Anne’s story an empathetic understanding of how people solve “life’s problems” - we go about solving them by saying, as Anne says, “I solve them as best I can”.

 

Happening is currently screening at Cinema Nova.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

2022 EDITION FIVE 'VOULEZ-VOUS' AVAILABLE NOW!

Edition 5 is all dolled up, adorned with student art, pretty words and scandelous hot-takes. Read it now!

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