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Sundance 2022 Review: Happening – “Made with sensitivity and compassion”

Anamaria Vartolomei, Louise Orry and Luàna Bajrami appear in Happening by Audrey Diwan, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by IFC Films.

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, Happening is one of three films at Sundance this year to highlight reproductive rights, the others being Call Jane and documentary The Janes.  The film, directed by Audrey Diwan, is based on a memoir by Annie Ernaux that chronicled her experience with abortion when it was illegal in 1963 France.

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Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a gifted, intelligent student in university, a bright star in her class.  She wants to go on to teach, and her classmates and professor alike see the promise in this confident young woman.  But in the lead up to exams, Anne discovers that she is pregnant, and in an instant the future she had planned for herself is slipping from her grasp. “Do something,” she pleads to the doctor, but all he can do is remind her that if she does terminate this pregnancy she, and even anyone who helps her, may end up in prison.

After trying some injections from a doctor that failed to bring on menstruation, Anne becomes worried and determined.  She tests the waters of discussing abortion with her friends to try and find support but is shut down.  She is, undeniably alone.  “Accept it.  You have no choice,” her doctor tells her after her own attempt at terminating the pregnancy fails.  Anne, understandably feeling the pressure of the ticking clock to find a solution becomes distracted under the weight of the stress; her grades slip, her mental health falters.  Her lack of choice is already having consequences, and Anne’s desperation to find the care she needs grows.

While a period drama, Happening feels so incredibly relevant still, almost sixty years after this experience takes place.  Though the film is distinctly pro-choice, the way this story is approached makes it much less political and much more deeply personal, bringing Ernaux’s own journey to life.  Diwan does an admirable job of putting the audience in Anne’s shoes as Vartolomei so acutely portrays her character’s distinct loneliness, disappointments and anger.  The film keeps track of the weeks of Anne’s pregnancy, each one bringing an increased sense of urgency and desperation.  There are raw, visceral moments and Diwan does not shy away from the more graphic depictions of Anne’s actions and their consequences as well as their physical danger.  For many women in particular, this film would classify as a horror, but there is often horror found in realism.

It’s easy to see why Happening made France’s shortlist for the Oscars this year.  It’s a film that is beautiful in its style and also made with sensitivity and compassion towards its protagonist and its subject matter.  Its central performance is brilliant, it’s compelling, and timely.  In comparison to the other narrative work on the subject here at Sundance, Call Jane, this is grittier, less tempered, more uncomfortable.  There is nothing about Happening that makes it an easy watch, but it’s an honest, authentic, and necessary one.

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