Thursday 12 May 2022

What it feels like for a girl: "Happening"

The sorry truth is that Audrey Diwan's
Happening would have felt timely at the time of shooting two years ago, with Donald Trump installed as the leader of the free world; it was deemed urgent enough to merit the Golden Lion at Venice last year; and it's become no less pertinent for passing into general circulation just as the U.S. Supreme Court looks set to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Until we take the great evolutionary leap of leaving the past behind and kicking capitalism to the kerb, there will always be attacks on such bedrocks of liberal democracy as a woman's right to choose, because there have always been those weirdoes who've used their position of power as a means of controlling women's bodies. In their adaptation of Annie Ernaux's 2003 memoir, Diwan and co-writer Marcia Romano yank us backwards on this grim timeline, to a point before the feminist advances of the counterculture: the early 1960s, within touching distance of a seismic generational shift that - for those young women anxiously in need of it - must have felt agonising light years away.

The title (L'événement, in the original French) invites multiple readings. There is surely a presentiment of les événements to come in there: once again, the French cinema carries us into the heart of a student community, theoretical cradle of enlightenment. Yet événement here also means those accidents that are generally regarded as happy, but can as easily be unhappy. Diwan's Annie (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a literature student who falls unexpectedly pregnant after a fleeting, notionally inconsequential dalliance with a contemporary. I say notionally inconsequential, because Annie thinks nothing (and the film shows even less) of it, but of course the consequences are huge, especially if you're a young woman who wants to study, and wants a career, in a country where abortion is still outlawed. Revisiting the pregnancy narrative from the perspective of someone who's not altogether psyched to be expecting became a comic trope over the past two decades, a moment when abortion was assumed to be an unassailable option (JunoObvious Child, Baby Done). One of Diwan's achievements, as the war on women intensifies once more, is to reclaim that trope for dramatic effect - to get serious, as Annie has to upon hearing the unfortunate news. Her first response to the doctor is a panicked do something, but he can't, so she's stuck, and for 100 minutes, we're stuck right there with her in a phase - period would be too cruel a word - pregnant with only terrible possibilities.

The emblematic casting of Sandrine Bonnaire - Varda's vagabonde - as Annie's bartender mother establishes Happening as a film operating in a certain socially-minded arthouse lineage. Once again, the camera is held tight over the protagonist's shoulder or just in front of her nose, the better to witness - in this case - the nervy peeks into panties and mirrors, the cockamamie non-solutions being proffered for Annie's problem, and the despairing lunge for the heated coathanger. There must be long shots in Happening, but in retrospect, I cannot recall a single one. What you take away from these boxy, 4:3ish frames is a sense of being too close to - at times, almost inhabiting - a body that has suddenly been transformed into a ticking timebomb. Onscreen updates - "3 weeks", "4 weeks", etc. - only underline our sense that what we're watching is an especially corporeal thriller about a growing threat from within.

Vartolomei's is a great performance because she lets us in, and lets us see how much Annie has going on beneath her swelling surface. This girl's a smart cookie attempting to think her way around the obstacles put inside and in front of her; her intelligence gives her a fighting chance, and Diwan and Romano write scenes where she actually starts out a beat or two in front of the viewer, obliging us to catch up on the go. (What's she learnt now? Where is she heading?) Still, those obstacles are numerous, and starting to mount up. It isn't just the cells in her womb and the frowning, forbidding establishment figures she crosses paths with in her quest for help; it's the girls in the locker room, themselves inculcated with some of the prevailing conservative attitudes; and it's the father-to-be, shrugging that he's done his bit before skulking out of view. This battle is forever more than one woman against her own body; holding up a mirror to wars going on elsewhere in the culture to this very day, Diwan pits intelligence and empathy against indifference and impassivity. When Annie returns to the doctor at nine weeks, his prognosis is damningly bleak: "Accept it. You have no choice."

Still, as our heroine persists, so too does the film. Happening reveals itself as shaped by its authors' heightened creative intelligence; this is real and involving drama, not merely a diatribe or tract. Diwan wears her period trappings intriguingly lightly - the costumes are era-appropriate, but hardly dwelt on - and displays little time for comforting nostalgia (no pop songs, no nights off at the movies). Instead, she allows each frame to flood with the immediacy of the here-and-now: only the attitudes have changed, and in some cases, we note with a gulp, the attitudes haven't changed all that much. In so doing, she allows that title to take on a third, previously hidden meaning, one which has something to do with the inevitability of these events. Rolling towards the abyss like a snowball towards hell, Happening bears out the idea that you're never going to stop these kinds of experiences - whether unplanned pregnancy or the panic that follows from it - but you can mitigate against them. (All anyone can hope to control, in other words, is the outcome; everything else is human nature.)

Diwan constructs two ultra-tense setpieces - one involving that heated coathanger, the other with an unsmiling Vera Drake-like figure - which are as discreetly handled as these events can be, yet uncomfortably lengthy and acutely felt. (One sound effect will stay with you forever.) The general feeling of dread Diwan conjures may be more palpable and unforgettable yet. Few films have better illustrated and demonstrated - frame by frame, scene by scene - how taking abortion off the table (and even nibbling away at it, week by week, as the narrative does here) is going to leave a lot of women feeling very alone, very scared and very vulnerable. Happening achieves something I didn't think was possible going in: it shows us - and by "us", I may mean "men", those of us who can't imagine what it is to feel the weight of the world in our belly - exactly what unplanned pregnancy must be like in a moment when safe abortion isn't an option. Someone should project Diwan's film on the walls of the Supreme Court until these rights are re-enshrined in law. Something has to be done.

Happening is now screening in selected cinemas.

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