Pleasure is worth dying for: ‘Happening’

Our political culture — nationally and globally — is so fucked that I can imagine Happening moving an anti-abortion audience. Destroying them maybe. Set in the early 1960s when le nouvelle vague of Godard and Truffaut did not generate a corresponding liberalization of France’s brutal abortion regime, Happening follows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a literature student from a lower middle-class family who can’t even discuss the termination of her pregnancy without putting herself and her beloved friends at risk for criminal prosecution. In the most graphic abortion scene in film history, director Audrey Diwan does nothing to ameliorate our feelings. But look at it this way: Americans who oppose abortion might conclude, “Here’s why we need to ensure that women aren’t arrested after bringing their child to term safely and honorably.”

This isn’t going to happen in a country like mine where some states are casting a cold eye on legal contraceptives, but it’s a testament to Happening‘s power. Diwan has created a curt, ruthless picture. Shot in smothering close-ups and an emphasis on off-camera questioning, Happening presents a society whose members accept their circumscribed existences. The movie itself verges on being cloistered. This is a thesis film: it has an argument, it presents evidence, it shuts the file. To require Happening to manipulate us with thriller tropes, as Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) did, or to use comedy as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always did so well a couple years ago would vulgarize the material; but Diwan presents a  mise en scène, resulting in the sort of experience where audiences leave the theater aghast at France’s once-draconian laws without discussing the rest of the picture.

Comfortable in a milieu where Jean-Paul Sartre’s ties to the Soviet Union spark furious conversation, Anne has the easy rapport with girlfriends whom she knows too well to feel a sense of competition with. Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) and Hélène (Luàna Bajrami of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) hide neither their smarts nor their prejudices; one mention of an abortion, though, and their faces cloud. The de Gaulle-era educational system might make Americans quake with fear: teachers relish calling on idle students, poking fun at their indolence, and threatening them with expulsion. But Anne’s a natural, conjugating Latin verbs and defining an anaphora with the crispness of a printout. And she better. Failure means a farmer’s life — “the tractor” as it’s referred to. Her parents, who love her but aren’t effusive about it, run a bistro she visits on weekends (Sandrine Bonnaire, in a quiet but nicely shaded small performance, plays Anne’s mom). She dances to rock and roll at a local club; her furtive glances suggest this is where the trouble started, especially local boys like Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein, Being 17), who at least tries to help later, and Maxime (Julien Frison), the father, who doesn’t: an ass who asks, “What are you going to do about it?” and pats his own back for showing concern.

It’s an impossible situation for Anne. Worrying about how to end the pregnancy distracts her from her studies; if she has the baby, she’ll never be anything but a single mother. “The law is unsparing,” intones Anne’s mildly sympathetic doctor, who at least doesn’t lie like the shark who earlier prescribes a treatment that strengthens the fetus. Twelve weeks into the pregnancy, one of Jean’s leads brings her to an abortionist’s door. As played by Anna Mouglalis, Madame Rivière is a grim, unsmiling presence, her gravelly voice and terse instructions toughened by years of dangerous and illegal work. Four hundred francs won’t guarantee a successful procedure, but such is Anne’s will that she submits anyway. In a continuous take, legs splayed, camera over Vartolomei’s right shoulder while Madame Rivière goes to work, Diwan shows why she was correct to trust this actress. Until this moment Anne’s stillness has been a species of a self-control so perfected that keeping hysteria at bay, as it might be in other women, is beside the point. She has prepared herself to write. Perhaps a lifetime of reading novels and poetry gave her imaginative resources commensurate with her resolve.

A more didactic filmmaker than Diwan would’ve structured Happening as a diptych in which the darker second half comments on the first — indeed, Laurent Tangy bathes the early weeks of Anne’s pregnancy in honeyed light. Rather than deny them agency, Diwan’s script, based on Annie Ernaux’s excellent novel L’événement, lets Anne and her friends act as sexual beings; the first scene, in which the girls experiment with bra sizes, sets the tone. They want to experience the liberties they read about, despite the pedantry of their exams and teachers: Brigitte, with the help of a willing pillow, even shows Anne and Hélène how to ride a man to achieve orgasm. At the height of her trauma Anne hooks up with a firefighter who’s long been in pursuit — and why not? She can’t get pregnant twice.

Happening needs those sequences. Too often films — unwittingly — collude with moralists and authorities in insisting on consequences. Pleasure, Happiness posits, is worth dying for. As we approach the month when the Supreme Court, confirming the validity of last month’s leaked draft opinion, will vitiate Roe v. Wade or overrule it entirely, I want to stop stressing abortion as recourse for the victims of rape and incest as if these, the worst victims of patriarchal malevolence, were the only victims. Women who like sex — women who make eyes at cute guys in bars for the purpose of seducing them — matter too. Anne is one of those women, and they’re all around us.


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