An Abortion Film That’s Both Topical and Timeless

In the Sundance drama Happening, the hardest part of one woman’s unwanted pregnancy is managing everyone else’s expectations.

A woman dances at a party in the film "Happening."
IFC Films / Sundance Institute

Anne Duchesne, the hero of the film Happening, is an intelligent and serious 23-year-old woman who knows what she wants. It’s 1963 in southwest France, and if her leering university classmates judge her, the daughter of a working-class family, for her literary ambitions and for hooking up with local men, so be it. Played by Anamaria Vartolomei, Anne is economical with her words and her friendships. She rarely switches up her wardrobe or hairstyle. And when she learns that she’s pregnant, she immediately asks her doctor to terminate it. “I’d like a child one day,” she says later, “but not instead of a life.”

Based on the acclaimed author Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel, Happening follows Anne as she seeks an illegal abortion. The director, Audrey Diwan, doesn’t indulge in melodrama; she takes a measured and minimalist approach to the story, immersing the audience in Anne’s perspective. The script, which Diwan co-wrote with Marcia Romano, has little dialogue or debate. Anne perceives her predicament in an almost mundane way: She simply wants to follow through on a personal decision. All her life, she’s been praised by her parents and her professors for being driven. Why is this choice any different? Why is her greatest asset beginning to feel like a flaw?

Happening, which debuted last year at the Venice Film Festival and won the Golden Lion, screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as one of multiple projects about unwanted pregnancies. Two other movies—the drama Call Jane and the documentary The Janes—told stories of the clandestine network of volunteers in Chicago who helped women secure safe illegal abortions. Sundance coincided with the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. and that the conservative Supreme Court is poised to reverse. The thematic resonance was unavoidable. Call Jane in particular seemed like a direct response to some states’ restrictive new laws; scenes of post-Roe celebrations on the steps of the Supreme Court building highlight the immense effort to secure reproductive rights in the U.S.—and how much people stand to lose today. But Diwan’s work, which just landed her a BAFTA nomination, is timeless. Happening draws its power from its clear-eyed, human-level focus on how stifling it is to have one’s private choice judged and challenged at every turn. Diwan, after all, read Ernaux’s work after her own abortion and felt a connection with the character’s pain. In her adaptation, she sought to transcend any time period or genre.

Still, although the story is evergreen, pop-culture treatment of abortion has taken decades to convey such consistent emotional nuance. Films such as the 1951 noir Detective Story framed the choice as a disturbing plot twist, and in the 1970s and ’80s, the subject was catnip for schlocky and preachy TV movies (I Want to Keep My Baby!, The Choice) in which characters were essentially talking points for opposing political stances. Only fairly recently have films begun to treat the subject of abortion with real empathy. Some, such as 2004’s Vera Drake, captured the perspective of those performing the procedure. Others, including 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and the 2020 Sundance darling Never Rarely Sometimes Always, examined women’s choices on an intimate level.

If these more thoughtful films understand the turmoil of attempting to obtain a safe abortion, Happening precisely understands the endeavor’s loneliness. Unlike Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the film does not offer Anne a single dependable ally to hold her hand. The man who impregnated her doesn’t want to help. When she confides in her closest friends, they tell her never to talk about abortion, out of fear that they’ll be implicated if she’s caught. She feels that she can’t reveal her pregnancy to her parents either—her mother in particular has invested too much in Anne succeeding in her studies.

Given Anne’s isolation, Happening eventually feels more like a psychological thriller than an abortion drama. Anne is not interested in debating ethics; she just wants to move on, and the film doesn’t dwell on her choice. Instead, it concentrates on the way those around Anne constantly intrude on her. Not only do they dismiss her decision, but they see her self-confidence as a challenge and a cruel invitation to impose their will onto her body. A classmate considers Anne’s pregnancy to be an excuse for worry-free sex. A doctor lies to her, pretending he can help her but prescribing medicine that strengthens the fetus instead. Anne is left utterly alone for wanting something that affects no one else’s body but her own.

Diwan uses a tight aspect ratio that narrows the screen, and she frequently tracks Anne from uncomfortably close behind, confining her further. The film can be unrelenting: Several graphic scenes make it challenging to watch, and more than once, I caught myself holding my breath. As the story’s weeks stretch into months, you can see the tension gather in Anne’s piercing gaze. It’s as if her eyes might set the screen aflame with her frustration, fury, and—eventually—panic.