“Happening” (2021) is more current than the decade of the 1960s

legal Aborrtion

Happening is a period film set in 1960s France, directed by Audrey Diwan. It has been adopted from the famous autobiographical 2000 novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux. In 1963, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) had a promising career ahead of her, but when she got pregnant, her hopes of finishing school were shattered. It’s illegal in France to have an abortion and to have a baby means to be a housewife. Anne didn’t want to have a child at that crucial point in her life so she took the matter into her own hands. Anne’s pregnancy becomes a ticking clock of dread as her options dwindle: Home remedies fail, doctors neglect or even trick her into taking embryo-strengthening shots, and close friends turn their backs.

Even though Happening is categorized as a drama, there are times when it resembles a thriller. The Happening is more current than expected given the ongoing situation after the overturning of the Roe v. Wade ruling in one of the most powerful countries in the world i.e. USA. Despite its decades-ago setting, Happening has never been more relevant, particularly for audiences in America. Diwan’s drama serves as a warning of what people may experience if Roe is overturned. It will set us back half a century, a world that Happening depicts as harrowing and restrictive.

Anne becomes increasingly desperate as her studies are affected and her window is closing. “I’d like a child one day,” she tells her doctor, “but not instead of a life {of my own], I could hate the kid for it.” The doctor then tells her to go through with the pregnancy: “Accept it. You have no choice.” Anne doesn’t believe that she has “no choice.” She’s young, she’s trying to choose her future, and she’s hitting dead ends everywhere she turns. And it also comes from people whom Anne thinks are supposed to help her. As for the men in Anne’s life, they’re a mixed bag. While a fellow student, Jean (Kacey Mottet-Klein), proves helpful but not very heroic, the hard-charging Professor Bornec (Pio Marma) misinterprets his star pupil’s declining marks as being lazy. These men aren’t villains, exactly, but their empathy is limited. Anne’s problem simply isn’t their problem. And the person who impregnated Anne was not even disclosed until half of the film, thereby excluding him in the whole process of the abortion.

Happening is not an easy movie to watch in the scenes where Anne’s desperation leads her to do some extreme things. I flinched multiple times and looked away when the camera refused to do so, with long takes that reflect all of Anne’s pain, fear, and discomfort as her desperation forces her to take risks. After getting turned back and even betrayed by so many people, she was determined to get rid of the pregnancy on her own. If later someone offers help, she just says to them “I will manage”. This shows how insensitive a society can get if rights are denied by law and the person suffering has to take everything on their shoulders.

Among Diwan’s greatest feats with “Happening” is making a case not only for safe access to legal abortions but also for true sexual freedom that dares to yearn for a world where slut-shaming is a thing of the past. Diwan almost persistently acknowledges and celebrates the equality of a woman’s desire in sequences both modest and euphoric, particularly one daring scene in which a female friend shows her masturbation technique in front of a shocked Anne. What a rare joy in a harsh society that denies women equality!

Abortion comes under the fundamental right of a human being to choose whether they want a baby or not. It’s a very personal choice that has its own emotional and labor costs. To regulate or ban those through law is directly controlling people’s bodies and lives. If the population size is the concern then there are other ethical ways through which it can be regulated by the state such as increasing health care services and easing the maternity and paternity phase through compensation and paid leaves. Directly controlling people’s choices is unethical.

  • Kamalika Basu

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