Golden Lion-winning ‘Happening’ is all about abortion, wonderful

Images courtesy FilmNation Entertainment.

7/10 Like many high-profile foreign films, Happening is capital “I” Important but not capital “G” Good. The newest Golden Lion winner is just as absent-mindedly charged as its recent peers, but it feels a little different this time. 

Université de Rouen Normandie, 1963- In Catholic France where having an abortion, or even assisting in finding one, is punishable with prison time, literature student Annie Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) discovers she is several weeks pregnant. Determined to finish her studies and rise out of poverty, she is lied to by anti-abortion doctors, betrayed by her friends and sought for “risk-free” sex by men she hopes will help her as she looks for ways to wrest back control of her body from the threat growing inside her.

The film is based on one of many autobiographical works of French writer Annie Ernaux. France would legalize abortion in 1975, and the French universal health care system has paid for most abortions in the country since 1982.

I watched Happening in May 2022 U.S. where it was almost certain, and has since come to pass, that abortion would be made illegal in several states just a month later, and I was also more excited for David Cronenberg’s forthcoming Crimes of the Future remake than I had been for any movie since I was a teenager, so I’ve got a few feelings about women’s health care and body horror in film as I’m watching this. It’s a terrific film, but it doesn’t meet either of those marks for me.

I skipped through the five-minute coat hanger abortion scene in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, but committed to forcing myself to watch the abortion scenes in Happening. Duchesne’s home abortion is shot in a single take holding on her from the neck up at an angle so you can see her right shoulder, and if I didn’t know better, it’d look more like she’s masturbating and having a bad time. In her second with a clandestine doctor’s assistance, again shot in a single take over Duchesne’s right shoulder with the side of her face and her splayed left leg in view, we can see utensils disappearing into her pelvis as she writhes in pain and tries not to scream, but we’ve got the same basic problem – Happening relies on the actor to tell the story instead of the camera.

This isn’t an objective problem with the film as much as a philosophical difference I have with it. Vartolomei does a fine job, but this isn’t something an actor should be asked to convey on her own. Viewers sympathize with the camera. Movies hijack viewers’ brains, taking over their vision. When you plant the camera like that, you take away a lot of the tools to tell the story actively. I see a woman in extreme pain fighting for her life and empathize, but Happening’s static filmmaking leaves the fuckos who see a slut with only herself to blame free to see that too.

After Nomadland’s frank look at American poverty and Joker’s deeply irresponsible validation of American masculine entitlement and romanticized anguish, Happening is the third straight Golden Lion winner to be wrapped up in American politics, but that’s a very U.S.-centric way to look at things. Actor Matt Dillon is the only American to sit on the Venice International Film Festival’s main jury in the past three years.

The abortion sequences are so mild I feel like the film would be better abandoning them, because Happening is a terrific picture when it focuses on its real plot – a determined young woman who needs help in a society that will imprison anyone who helps her. The film’s main body is a paranoid walk about Rouen as Duchesne tries to maintain her day-to-day life, which she must do in order to avoid suspicion. Rumors and gossip can have life-altering consequences, and everyone knows the score.

Happening is a wonderful exploration of how dystopian a society can be with this one simple change, but also how complicated the change actually is in practice. Outlawing human behavior is an exercise in futility – for a vibrant recent American example, we all remember the summer a few years back when half the country decided at the same time to make it illegal for trans people to piss and all the hilarious pitfalls those laws would have run into if they’d passed, but the point wasn’t these impossible results, the point was to ostracize and inflict fear and pain on a marginalized group. Happening avoids the details of French law where it can, but the fear and ostracism are plain at the surface. With abortion laws hanging over all the hot early 20s women, the college town is a blanket of paranoia and sexual repression. The clubs are always packed, but everyone makes a point of going home alone.

Happening is a first-person account of how much things suck when abortion is illegal, but that’s only about a quarter of the story. The full story is fascists are trying to establish state control over women as a natural resource while simultaneously installing a state religion, and we have to stop them.

The movement to outlaw abortion in the U.S. cannot be separated from the white and Christian nationalist and supremacist movement that it has led and followed and then led again, nor can it be separated from the idea that the law is a hammer meant to come down on bad people and that it should reflect Christian morality in which “God’s will,” whatever that is this week, takes the place of consequentialism or Kantian ethics or anything else based in rational thought.

This isn’t something that is happening. This is a decades-long movement carried out by specific human beings who are willing to see women die for perceived political and social gain.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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