With her sophomore effort, Audrey Diwan has crafted what will undoubtedly qualify as one of the year's finest horror films, though this is horror not so much in the traditional sense that we think of the genre but in the more universal sense that real horror comes when it arrives in our daily life.
In this case, the horror arrives in the life of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a promising academic preparing for the vigorous entrance exams that promise her placement at a prestigious university when she discovers that she is pregnant.
Happening takes place in 1963 France. Abortion is illegal and however this story unfolds threatens to define Anne for the rest of her life.
It most certainly threatens to derail her future plans.
It is particularly devastating to view Happening at the same time that the United States is, it would appear, on the verge of having Roe v. Wade overturned and the constitutional right to abortion rescinded in favor of a return to the more piecemeal, and criminally unstable, rights afforded individuals state-by-state. It is impossible to watch Anne's story unfold without thinking about virtually every woman in the United States at this very moment.
Happening captured the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021 and now arrives in theaters with indie distributor IFC Films, an appropriate home for a film destined to be talked about when awards season comes around. While she is unlikely to get the recognition she deserves stateside, Anamaria Vartolomei gives what is unquestionably one of the year's best performances as Diwan practically forces us into an uncomfortable intimacy with her and her journey toward seeking a resolution of this absolutely unwanted pregnancy. It is impossible to watch 1963 France unfold and not think about 2022 U.S., where society can be as unsparing as is the law or at least the politicized interpretation of it.
D.P. Laurent Tangy creates visually imagery of Anne's boxed-in world, a world where she is trapped whether she walks side-to-side, up or down. The lensing here is mesmerizing and in-your-face and relentlessly unflinching. Happening isn't so much a film that you enjoy watching as you simply can't stop watching it. Anne lives in a world where the men who surround her won't think twice about inflicting consequences upon her whatever choices she happens to make, though perhaps what's even more jarring is that even those females around her whom she calls friends possess a sort of internalized, institutionalized misogyny. The story is adapted by Marcia Romano and Diwan from a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux called L’événement which, if translated directly, would be translated to "the event."
Indeed, this singular event could very well send Anne to prison if she doesn't die instead from the back-alley abortions not unsimilar from America's own past. There are scenes here that are nothing less than true body horror, scenes in which Anne's body and mind are isolated and alone and threatened in every single second that unfolds. It's horrifying to watch.
And yet, particularly now, it feels necessary to watch.
Vartolomei's performance is masterful because she doesn't just project the outward, externalized horror but the internal, silent horror that comes from having society smother you with a pillow and refuse to let up. Even as I write this review, I can practically feel Anne's gasping.
There are also, I must acknowledge, moments of remarkable intimacy and something resembling a purity of soul. We absolutely are not allowed to and cannot see Anne as anything but a desperate young woman who both faces this horror and longs for life outside of it.
Truly, perhaps moreso than any other film this year, Happening has just completely blown me away and wiped away any chance that existed of complacency in the face of contemporary America.
Original music by Evgueni Galperine immerses us even more deeply within Anne's world while Geraldine Mangenot's editing work here allows us to linger within Anne's horror without ever exploiting it.
Happening is, quite simply, one of the best films to arrive in theaters this year and also certainly one of the most memorable. Behind a towering performance by Anamaria Vartolomei, Audrey Diwan's Happening is a timely, unflinching masterpiece.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic