‘It’s not fair,’ is a line from this drama that sums it up rather neatly. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a bright young student who gets pregnant on her first time. Abortion is so illegal, no-one even dares utter the word. Doctors – invariably male – are more inclined to sabotage her attempts to end the pregnancy than help. Male students see her condition as a sexual opportunity. She will have to give up her studies if she goes to term. When a professor asks what has been ailing her, she describes it as ‘an illness that strikes only women and turns them into housewives’.
And it really isn’t fair. Audrey Diwan’s elegant film makes this point without banging any drums, instead neatly weaving it into the fabric of an engaging realist drama. The stakes are so high, the French director is even able to introduce a thriller-like elements to the story (based on the autobiographical short by French author Annie Ernaux). The ticking clock in Anne’s belly lends tension, while the possibility of hospitalisation, death or prison looms large: anyone who even helps her could end up behind bars.
Audrey Diwan’s elegant film is not for the faint hearted
Happening is not for the faint hearted: it goes further than Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake in depicting the realities of illegal abortion. But there’s respite in other more soothing details of Anne’s life, including the friendship of Hélène (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), who self-identifies as the ‘most well-informed virgin on the planet’. Diwan was BAFTA nominated for the film, and it was richly deserved, while Vartolomei makes a luminous heroine full of gritty determination. Their collaboration makes for an atmospheric, gripping drama with a poignant contemporary relevance.
In UK cinemas April 15 and US theaters May 6.