'Happening' review: Intense French abortion drama speaks to the moment

Audrey Diwan's French import won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The stark French abortion drama "Happening" couldn't arrive at a more opportune time. While it takes place 60 years ago, its story is uncomfortably relevant today. 

Anamaria Vartolomei is riveting as Anne, a young student who gets pregnant with a baby she does not want to keep. The film follows her frightening journey to terminate the pregnancy at a time when abortion is illegal and she faces prison time if caught. It's a nightmare scenario, and director Audrey Diwan stages it in graphic, uncompromising, unflinching fashion. 

Anamaria Vartolomei in "Happening."

Anne is just a few weeks along when a doctor informs her she's pregnant. When she asks her options, he takes on a hushed tone: it's 1963 in France and abortion is not even spoken of, and he risks his own job advising her on what she can do to end the pregnancy. 

She takes matters into her own hands, going to a doctor who tricks her, giving her shots that strengthen the embryo. Classmates at school begin harassing her as her bump starts to show. She even tries performing the procedure herself, in a scene that Diwan depicts with necessary unease. 

Anne becomes increasingly desperate as her studies are affected and her window is closing. "I'd like a child one day," she tells her doctor, "but not instead of a life." She's young, she's trying to make a choice for her future, and she's hitting dead ends everywhere she turns. 

Vartolomei is startling: vulnerable, scared, determined and unapologetic, she wears Anne's grief and terror in her every look and deep within the recesses of her ocean blue eyes. Audiences will bring what they will to the film, but Diwan's responsibility is to her characters and their truth. "Happening" isn't a political movie, it's a horror movie. 





Rated R: for disturbing material/images, sexual content and graphic nudity

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters