Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
In the United States we can no longer describe Happening as a “never again” cautionary tale, because here the Dark Ages are already back, and in a few months, when abortion will apparently be fully illegal in more than half the country, it be official. So there’s nothing cautionary about this brutal, deeply empathetic movie; it is a horror film rooted in everyday reality.
The film’s argument is expressed through precise fury, specifically in its close identification with college-age Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei). And by “close,” we are describing director Audrey Diwan’s visual strategy; the camera rarely leaves the immediate proximity of Anne’s body, sometimes seeming to lock in just behind her shoulder as she navigates the minefields of classroom, doctor’s office, and home abortionist. It is 1963 France, and abortion is illegal, and Anne is pregnant, by an episode which we do not see. She is a gifted student, plans a career as a teacher or writer, and does not want to have a child.
The film leaves out the liaison from which the pregnancy results. (We eventually meet the young man involved in the one-night stand, a privileged boy from Bordeaux. He is otherwise unimportant to the story, and to Anne’s life.) This absence makes sense; the movie is about something else. It is intriguing that Anne’s sexual experience, from what we know and see of it, seems to stem from something like intellectual curiosity (and perhaps a reaction against society’s rules) rather than desire. She comes across as a budding artist, watchful, a little removed.
Diwan, who based the film on a memoir by Annie Ernaux, holds back nothing in the depiction of the physical and emotional nightmare of not being able to decide what happens to one’s body. It is difficult to watch, which is another way of saying that it is uncompromising. And yet—in part because of the visual strategy described above—this isn’t kitchen-sink realism, but a very cinematic experience. Diwan’s style may recall the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta or László Nemes’s Son of Saul, with the camera so close to the protagonist that we practically mind-meld with the character, but it has its own fluidity, too, a sense of the world in motion around Anne, from the dancers at a rock ‘n roll party to the easy dormitory intimacy of girls getting ready for a party.
Not that people will be talking about this film’s cinematic integrity—not at this moment. Outrage will be the response, for good reason.
May 13, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.