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Happening review: A brutal but necessary drama

Happening is a horror movie. It might not seem like one on the surface, but it is. Directed by Audrey Diwan and based on a novel by Annie Ernaux, the film follows a young student named Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) as she struggles to get an abortion during a time in early 1960s France when the act was illegal. Over the course of its tight 100-minute runtime, the film alternates between feeling like an intimate family drama, coming-of-age story, and espionage thriller.

But the one thing that Happening never loses is the sense of dread that is immediately present in the film’s opening minutes and only continues to grow more palpable the further into its story it gets. To watch the film is to feel like you’re being pulled further and further into a nightmare, the walls squeezing in and shadows overtaking everything in sight. It’s a nightmare that feels even more suffocating because Happening’s story is not only based in reality but is one that has suddenly become distressingly topical and relevant over the past few days.

Despite that, Diwan refrains from ever breaking the immersion of Happening’s story in order to remind us of its modern-day relevance. Instead, the film’s script, direction, and aesthetic keep it firmly rooted in its early ‘60s French setting. By doing so, Happening accomplishes what all great historical dramas should: It tells a story about yesterday that serves as a warning for today.

A nightmarish experience

Anne sits with two of her friends on a bench in Happening.
IFC Films, 2022

The film is only Diwan’s second feature outing as a director, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess that while watching it. From its very first frame, Happening is directed with a level of control and attention that makes Diwan’s voice and intent immediately clear. Working with cinematographer Laurent Tangy, the director brings a primarily handheld approach to Happening that makes it feel alive and bustling but also crushingly intimate.

Together, Tangy and Diwan often keep the camera as close to the face of Vartolomei’s Anne as they can, creating a sense of intimacy that makes it easy to not only connect to Anne but also feel the same sense of growing suffocation she does the longer her unwanted pregnancy goes on. After some time, that claustrophobic visual approach imbues Happening with a startlingly Lynchian, nightmarish quality that becomes all-encompassing when Anne is forced to start taking greater and greater risks in order to have a shot at keeping her life together.

The film’s visual style also means that Diwan never fully takes the spotlight away from Anamaria Vartolomei, a French-Romanian actress who might just have the most piercing set of blue eyes that cinema has seen in quite some time. Diwan makes great use of those blue eyes, and the performance that she captures is nothing short of breathtaking. In the first half of the film, Vartolomei emphasizes Anne’s intelligence and stubbornness while keeping her growing panic bubbling just beneath the surface.

The more time goes on, however, the more Anne’s composed façade begins to crumble, revealing the fear, anger, and desperation that has made simply functioning on a daily basis a near-impossible task for her. In a subtle but effective visual nod to the character’s arc, Diwan even has Anne’s typically pulled-back hair eventually fall down and around her face like a messy veil. Vartolomei, meanwhile, brings a raw energy to Anne’s painful disintegration that’s captivating to watch in the moment, and difficult to shake afterward.

She and Diwan also never shy away from showing the physical toll Anne must endure over the course of her journey, and certain scenes in Happening even venture into full-on body horror territory. These scenes are difficult to watch, but it’s a testament to Diwan, Vartolomei, and everyone involved in Happening that the reason for their inclusion is never in question. This is a bold and assured film, and it’s never felt more necessary than it does now.

Happening premieres in theaters on May 6 and will become available on demand on June 21.

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