“Happening” is a dark but timely warning of 1960s France

In The tense and discreetly radical film by Audrey Diwan Event, Anne, a bright young student from the early 1960s in France, discovers that she is pregnant. The law, as the doctor who breaks the news tells him, “is ruthless.” Anyone who helps her terminate her pregnancy will end up in jail, just like her. Her closest friends abandon her when she confesses her fate; the father of the unborn child absolves himself of responsibility. A doctor who feigns sympathy pretends to help her, when in reality he is trying to seal her fate. And when she begs a male teacher to help her catch up on lessons she missed, he asks bluntly what caused her absence. “The disease that strikes only women,” she says, “and turns them into housewives.”

Event– which won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival last year – is a difficult film to watch. That’s partly because of a harrowing, albeit quietly shot, scene in which the heroine – played with raw, bruised resolve by Anamaria Vartolomei – attempts a DIY abortion with a knitting needle. (When I saw the film in Venice, several spectators left the room during this scene, although among those leaving I did not count a single woman.)

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But Diwan’s film is less heartbreaking for its depictions of physical suffering than for its frank exploration of Anne’s emotional desolation. She is a country girl whose dream is to become a teacher. But women who have sex before marriage are called “quick” – their sexual desire is treated as a flaw, a cause for shame.

Event is adapted from the 2000 book by French writer Annie Ernaux, detailing the experience of her own abortion in 1963. It is an unbending picture in some respects; you might yearn for a burst of optimism nestled amidst its layers of dark truth. But then, all his hope lies in Anne’s face, as uncompromising as a precocious crocus. It’s the face of a woman who deserves far more respect – for her body, for her very life – than society gives her. And if 1960s France seems like a distant time and place, Event comes with a warning: the country it shows us is probably the United States of tomorrow.

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