Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
It seems that I have been challenging myself a lot with movies lately. Happening, known as < I>L’événement in the original French is very much a punishing movie. It’s also one that is incredibly important right now, at least in the U.S. It’s a movie that doesn’t pull any punches, so I’m not going to pull any, either. This is a movie about abortion, and it’s a successful one specifically because no matter which side of that debate you fall on, this is a movie that is going to upset you.
You should also be prepared for a surprising amount of nudity. You might expect some because of the subject, but there’s a lot of full frontal nudity in this as well as a sequence where we watch one of the friends of the main character masturbate with a pillow. Be prepared for this if you’re going to watch—you’ll see a lot of nude young women standing in line waiting to get into a communal shower.
Happening takes place in 1960 in France, where abortion is illegal, and even talking about it borders on the criminal or at least suspicious. Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is planning on a life of teaching literature and is working toward her undergraduate degree. On a trip home, she visits a local doctor and despite claiming to still be a virgin, he tells her that she is about a month pregnant. Realizing that if she had the baby it would define the rest of her life and destroy any career goals she has, she begs the doctor for an abortion, but he refuses because of the illegality of the procedure.
What follows here is not going to be very surprising. Anne, who already has a reputation as a slut, is terrified of admitting her problem to anyone. Her reputation is unearned, considering the sexual activities of some of the people around her and seems to come primarily from the fact that she is actually a talented student. Regardless, admitting the pregnancy will brand her as an original mattress-back. Hints to other students end in disaster—one of her friends abandons her and an acquaintance tries to have sex with her since there is “no risk” with her already being pregnant.
Because of both the stigma and the illegality of abortion at the time, Anne is in a constant state of realizing that the life she wants is ending. A failed attempted abortion on her own fails, and eventually, she is put in touch with a woman named Mme Riviere (Anna Mouglalis) who can and will perform the abortion for her, but the cost is exorbitant, forcing her to sell off most of her belongings to pay for it.
From a reviewer’s perspective, Happening is not an easy movie to address, because it doesn’t have a great deal of subtlety to it. It’s exactly what it depicts—a young girl becomes pregnant, realizes that having a child will end every dream she has and will brand her as a moral degenerate, and forces her to act in increasing desperation. This is the strength of the film. Trying to make this an allegory or trying to hide Anne’s increasing desperation and willingness to potentially kill herself to preserve her dream would weaken the message that needs to be delivered.
But, because of this, there isn’t a great deal of nuance here or things to uncover and dig through. Happening is as subtle as a punch to the face, and that’s why it is successful as a movie. We need to see Anne’s despair as it happens and we need to see her knowledge that time is running out on her. We need to see that time tick away and see her be conscious of every tick.
Happening is not an easy movie to recommend because it isn’t an easy movie to watch. It’s an “issue” movie, and a good one because it doesn’t play around with the issue. It simply makes the issue obvious, shows us the increasing terror in Anne’s face, and lets the story run out as it needs to for us to get to the ending.
This is a hell of a statement, and what makes it so substantial is that there are moments that are as hard to watch and sit through as any body horror film…but it’s real.
Why to watch Happening: It’s important in a very real way.
Why not to watch: It’s unpleasant in those same real ways.