Taking us back to 1960s Paris, the latest drama from writer and director Audrey Diwan is based upon Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel of the same name. Happening, or L’événement in its native tongue, follows young literature student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) as she attempts to bring an abrupt end to her unwanted pregnancy. During this time, abortions were illegal in France so as the weeks go by, she becomes increasingly desperate, willing to risk a prison sentence to give herself the opportunity to live the life that she wants.
Due to the time sensitive nature of the dilemma at the centre of this story, the film adopts a narrative structure that adds genuine suspense to the ordeal. It’ll come as no surprise that Diwan has experience in thrillers, co-writing screenplays such as BAC Nord and The Man with the Iron Heart with her husband, Cédric Jimenez. This period piece is almost framed within the same genre, each week gradually piling on crippling tension to the ticking time-bomb plot as the protagonist shuts herself off from friends, family, and her studies.
Filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the narrow composition provides a claustrophobic dread; harrowing scenes in the final act are masterfully directed by Diwan but are very difficult to watch. She lets certain shots hang into an uncomfortable space, and the absence of music is deafening. Offering little to no respite from the terror she is enduring, the unwavering lens exhibits the fear on Anne’s face in her most isolated, heart-breaking moments.
Vartolomei has big expressive eyes and a very charismatic face, and Diwan makes full use of this canvas through the fluid camerawork of Laurent Tangy. Capturing her dancing at a college disco in early scenes as an effortlessly cool, confident, and care-free presence, we follow her intimately throughout, examining the nuances in her transformation as she descends into a terrified shell of her former self. It is an astounding, emotionally charged leading performance.
A striking sophomore effort from director Audrey Diwan, Happening is an incredibly challenging yet vital piece of work that presents itself as a timely social-issue thriller. Not for the faint-hearted but well worth watching through your hands in horror.