“HAPPENING” A Gut-Wrenching Look at Illegal Abortions in 1963 France

Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’ decides to take matters into her own hands. Photo Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release
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At The Movies With…
Lady Beverly Cohn

The Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973 stated that
restrictive state regulations on abortion is unconstitutional. Before that
landmark decision, women were forced to either try to end the pregnancy
themselves with coat hangers or when affordable, seek backstreet abortions
by people who weren’t always qualified resulting in botched procedures with
severe hemorrhaging and a staggering number of thousands of women dying
each year.

Poster Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Up until last year, women had reproductive rights which meant they could
choose to terminate a pregnancy. Those rights came to a dramatic halt when
Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed SB 8 into law which bans
abortions if there is fetal cardiac activity detected as early as 5-6 weeks when
most women don’t even know they are pregnant. The bill set up a vigilante
system where almost anyone can sue abortion providers along with those
who aid and abet in any way. Oklahoma followed suit this year passing SB
612, which was signed into law by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt. This
bill virtually bans almost all abortions except to save the life of a pregnant
woman in a medical emergency. This now illegal procedure is a felony
punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $100,000. The latest to
join this war against women is Kentucky, which bans all abortions, whether
the result of rape or incest.

Anamaria Vartolomei as ‘Anne’ and Sandrine Bonnaire as her mother ‘Gabrielle’ in Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING. 
Photo Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

For many women who have not personally experienced an abortion, the word
is almost abstract. I, for one, never really understood the entire procedure but
I will tell you that that director Audrey Diwan’s outstanding HAPPENING,
(L’événement,) based on an autobiographical book by Annie Ernaux, is a
haunting story about a young girl’s desperation to end her pregnancy. The
riveting script, co-written by the director and Marcia Romano, is a brutal
look at the personal experience of a determined young co-ed in France 1963.

The protagonist is Anne, brilliantly played by Anamaria Vartolomei, who
digs deeply into her character resulting in a tour-de-force performance
mastering the powerful sub-text of her character. She is attending university
in Angoulême with her two besties Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and
Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and is an outstanding student with the goal of
continuing with her studies. I should point out that there is absolutely
nothing subtle about Director of Photography Laurent Tangy’s amazing
camera work. One of many close-ups is where Anne checks her underpants
for any sign of her period, which is now five weeks overdue. She finally goes
to a doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) who tells her she’s pregnant and sets in
motion her heartbreaking odyssey to get an abortion. It should be noted that
during this period in France, abortions are totally illegal punishable by
imprisonment for the girl, the doctor who performs the procedure, or anyone
who assists in any way. Desperate, Anne seeks out another doctor (François
Loriquet), who gives her medication that he tells her will cause a miscarriage
but she later finds out that the drug actually strengthen the fetus. Anne tries
living her normal life – spending time with her friends, visiting her parents,
and attending classes where her concentration is marred by the overarching
problem she’s facing. Her once top grades are falling and one professor tries
speaking to her to find out what’s going on in her life. She doesn’t answer his
questions and it looks like she’s going to fail her exams.

Clearly, medical relief is not forthcoming so she decides to try to self-abort
and takes a long kabob skewer from her mom’s home. We watch her sanitize
the instrument by burning it with a match, we see her lie down, and although
we don’t actually see this skewer being inserted, Vartolomei’s incredible
acting, along with Diwan’s direction, and Tangy’s superb camera work, we
just see the top of her head and know only too well what is going on. Anne’s
attempt to abort fails and finally a friend gives her the name of a woman who
performs the procedure for 400 francs. Anna Mouglalis’ Mme Rivière is a
no-nonsense business woman. While she sterilizes the equipment, she does
not wear latex gloves and blows on the speculum to cool it down. She warns
this young girl that’s it’s going to hurt but if she cries out or makes any sounds,
the procedure will immediately stop. Again, the camera angles down from the
top of her head so we just see her legs spread apart and hear sounds of
equipment being used, without actually seeing anything. However, we know
from her changing breathing when the pain gets unbearable. As bad luck
would have it, the miscarriage does not occur and Anne goes back to Mme Rivière who warns her that a second procedure could be dangerous. With time running out she’s desperate and insists on proceeding with the second try. Back at the dorm, the outcome is almost catastrophic as she winds up
hemorrhaging and passes out. Luckily one of her friends is with her and immediately calls for an ambulance where the unconscious Anne is fighting for her life.

‘Anne’ (Anamaria Vartolomei) tries to pay attention in school, but her unwanted pregnancy totally dominates her life.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

There is nothing in this intense thriller, which recently won the Golden Lion
at the 78 th  Venice Film Festival, that is sugarcoated and although sometimes
difficult to watch, I think it’s important to see one young woman’s horrendous
experience back in 1963 and the sobering reality that once again women in
Texas, Wyoming, Kentucky and Florida will be forced to go through the
same backdoor, life-threatening procedure.

Again, this is not an easy film to watch, but I highly recommend it as a window
into one young woman’s heartbreaking but successful experience to end her
pregnancy and a window into what lies ahead for American women in
Republican led states.

Director: Audrey Diwan
Screenplay: Audrey Diwan, Marcia Romano & Annie Ernaux
Based on the book by Annie Ernaux
Distributor: Wild Bunch
Productions Companies: Rectangle Productions,
France 3 Cinéma, SRAB Films
Producers: Edouard Weil, Alice Girard
Director of Photography: Laurent Tangy
Editor: Géraldine Mangenot
Production designer: Diéné Bérété
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Language: French with English Subtitles
Running Time: 120 minutes
Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luàna Bajrami,
Louise Orry-Diquéro, Louise Chevillotte
Opens Friday, May 6 th – The Landmark – Los Angeles
June 21: On Demand
Friday, May 13 – Nationwide rollout
Check your local theatres
Content Warning: Contains sequences with graphic medical procedures


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