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Happening ★★★★



Director: Audrey Diwan

Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luàna Bajrami

Release: June 17, 2022 (UK Cinemas)

Happening is a timeless depiction of a debate that’s re-occurring now within the United States with the potential challenge to the decision in Roe v Wade, 49 years later, concerning a woman’s right to choose. The reproductive rights of women in 1960s France were virtually non-existent to the degree of being life-threatening without the alternative of a choice. While their UK counterparts had successfully fought with an active Women’s Liberation Movement, many women in France lacked the same freedoms. They encountered intense scenarios similar to those depicted in Happening, as terminating an unwanted pregnancy was still illegal. Terrifyingly, it is a topic over which the debate continues to this day, and the battle for women’s reproductive rights were equally highlighted in recent films such as Women is Losers.

Other countries such as Poland have recently had debates and protests regarding termination issues with imposing restrictive laws in effect. Such stories such as that of Anne’s in Happening remain continuously relevant. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel L’événement by Annie Ernaux, Happening is also the winner of the Golden Lion at Venice 2021 and is an emotionally charged, impactful tale embracing a political stance.

Anamaria Vartolomei plays the ambitious Anne who, in 1963, dreams of fulfilling her parents’ ambitions for her to graduate from university. However, being a student before the French sexual revolution also evokes an inner conflict. This conflict is particularly evident in the Catholic teachings at Anne’s school, where staunch conservative views against pregnancy, out of wedlock, are disseminated throughout masses and the community. The sense of oppression and the patriarchy are therefore prevalent within Happening.

As a coming of age tale, Happening imbues a sense of fear, desperation and isolation due to Anne’s predicament, which is exacerbated by feelings of being ostracised by her friends and the ongoing societal pressures. Therefore it eschews the stereotypical light-touch approach within the coming of age genre. Through Anne’s eyes, the film illustrates the immense burden of life choices that permeate many women’s lives nowadays, namely whether to pursue those career ambitions fully or to start a family at a particular juncture in their lives. The narrow camera angles directed by director Audrey Diwan further accentuates this sense of claustrophobia and isolation for Anne and the audience. It is an effective device that lays the pathway for an emotional journey without sensationalisation and an emotional resonance with Anne’s plight and her ongoing quest for freedom.

Anamaria’s emotional portrayal of Anne as the troubled schoolgirl is impressive, with expressive facial expressions effortlessly conveying the emotions with minimal dialogue. Her presence is captivating and magnetic as she provides that dynamic on-screen visceral performance with closes ups enhancing her emotional range. Happening is unafraid to embrace the silences through Anamaria’s performance to convey Anne’s deep sense of isolation whilst contemplating embarking on an illegal activity. The film also illustrates that creating a culture of silence was a controlling tool by which such issues were not discussed, thereby creating a wall of shame towards girls and thoughts of being sexually active.

Anne’s predicament is unenviable, and Diwan expresses this by producing anxiety-inducing tension of this reality in the editing choices during the film’s runtime but had deliberately wished not to portray body horror. Diwan amplifies Anne’s imminent sense of urgency, with weekly title cards punctuating several scenes. Happening’s female lens, therefore, provides that sympathetic and sensitive depiction of Anne’s plight.

This relatable, emotional depiction was important for Diwan in this breath-taking second feature. Her masterful direction of this angst-ridden life event fully submerges the audience in Anne’s world and frustration with the lack of choices. Whilst the film does not delve into the minutiae of Anne’s access to economic resources to pursue the intended course of action as a 16-year-old, which lends a degree of implausibility, there is still an evocation of the terror and pressure present despite this limitation.

Happening is a tender, powerful but brutal depiction of a schoolgirl’s desperation and agony in a quest for freedom against patriarchal laws, which is shocking and moving in equal measures. It excels in ratcheting up the distress, with handheld camerawork, when most 16-year-olds are considering which new clothes to buy and make up to wear. As such, the film depicts a compelling but grounded reality of the plight of many. It is a harrowing watch at moments but equally provides that insight into the cultural and political stakes in effect with the omnipresent patriarchal framework dictating women’s reproductive rights. Happening’s unflinching approach to the subject matter provides a riveting viewpoint regarding these reproductive rights, with excellent performances. Diwan’s perspective in tackling this subject offers a thought-provoking discussion of a timeless and topical issue.

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