Set in 1960s France, Audrey Diwan's powerful film explores the plight of a promising young university student who becomes unwillingly pregnant and tries to do something about it, despite abortion being illegal
Three weeks, then seven, then twelve: in Audrey Diwan’s Happening, time is a pitiless and unrelenting thing. Its ticking clock marks the days since Annie (a remarkable Anamaria Vartolomei) had her last period, begged a doctor for help, armed herself with a knitting needle and lighter. The year is 1963 and in France abortion is illegal, but for Annie – a star pupil set on university – going without is unthinkable.
There is barely a shot where Vartolomei is not in frame, and her performance – taut and sinuous and forceful – grounds Happening in the intimate trauma of patriarchal control. Yet Diwan’s film is less a character study, visceral and personal though it is, than a portrait of a universal predicament. In fields, dorms and bars, Annie’s schoolmates whisper about men and coyly mimic sex positions, their desires a girlish fantasy until the reality of bodies and an indifferent state come crashing down; the softly suffused pastel of school life is suddenly bloodied and sweat-stained.
Diwan’s camera is tight on tense young faces, crumpled underwear and splattered sheets, the film's boxy aspect ratio near-suffocating as she soberly charts the imposed bodily risk of female desire, the impossibility of lust when so much punishment might ensue. “Agere, ago, agis, agit,” chorus Annie’s friends during Latin revision, oblivious of her plight. Yet when “agere” – to act – might mean prison, death or condemned domesticity, Happening is a harrowing reminder that such agency can never be taken for granted.
Happening screened at Glasgow Film Festival and is released in the UK 22 April by Picturehouse