Though France’s choice of Titane as their official Oscar submission was a thrillingly bold one, it also raised some eyebrows – a film as bizarre and transgressive as Julia Ducornau’s sophomore effort was always unlikely to make much headway with Academy voters and did fail to make the final five. After seeing Audrey Diwan’s Happening, those eyebrows reach new heights. Here is a searing and serious excoriation of systemic misogyny that seems tailor made to win big prizes (it nabbed the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) without sacrificing its urgent and distinct voice.

Adapting Annie Ernaux’s memoir of seeking an – illegal at the time – abortion in early ‘60s France, Happening immediately immerses you in the headspace of young heroine Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) and never lets you up for air once over the course of its 100 minute runtime. Diwan keeps her nimble, handheld camera close to Vartolomei’s face throughout, creating a woozy and claustrophobic atmosphere, while Vartolomei’s forceful performance and enormous eyes make the most of these constant close-ups, inviting you into Anne’s frantic mind.

It’s a fascinating way to adapt a deeply personal and very frank memoir, almost casting the audience as Anne herself, from her initial discovery of the pregnancy to the various attempts to get rid of it so she can continue her studies and live a full life. Diwan masterfully balances the discomfort of this central technique with shots that still consistently manage to grant Anne an earnest dignity, even in the film’s darkest moments, not using frankness as an excuse for ghoulishness in its navigation of the dangerous underground world of secret abortions.

Happening is utterly unsparing, but its graphicness never feels self-conscious, whether in the frequent unfussy nudity or the teeth-grittingly horrible scenes of the termination attempts. A warning is perhaps necessary – this is maybe the most explicit depiction of the physical realities of the abortion procedure and its aftermath that I’ve ever seen in a film. One particularly upsetting scene uses such grisly sound design and prosthetics that, when coupled with Vartolomei’s wildly distressed performance, craft a truly haunting moment of trauma, one that will stay with you for a very long time.

Anne’s slowly deteriorating relationship with her friends as her pregnancy becomes more cumbersome forms a decent chunk of the rest of the story and, though it does contain some smartly layered examinations of bubbling jealousies amongst friendship groups, it never really compels as much as Anne’s individual journey. Her world is suddenly fraught with new dangers, from hostile doctors to the threat of imprisonment if the authorities ever find out, and allies are hard to come by – the father is a dim waste of space and even the kindest doctor can only offer apologies and no actual help. It makes for a story both infuriating and deeply sad, as universal in its study of undying misogyny as it is personal in its recounting of Anne’s particular story.

Often blisteringly bleak, Happening balances its tragedies with little glimmers of hope that Anne may eventually be able to move through a better world. It’s a difficult, borderline harrowing viewing experience at times, made all the more so by its unsparing stylistic choices, but it needs to be to tell such a deeply felt story, dragging a dark (but still pretty recent) piece of Europe’s past to the surface, exposing a societal ugliness to the harsh light of day. Remarkably, Happening is only Audrey Diwan’s second film – it burns with the fiery confidence of an old master.


Directed by Audrey Diwan

Written by Audrey Diwan and Marcia Romano

Starring; Anamaria Vartolomei, Luana Bajrami, Louise Orry-Diquéro

Runtime: 100 mins

Rating: 18