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Pregnant Pause

IFC Films

Happening (2022)

Something at which French cinema excels is the feeling of living inside a body. It’s the slow accretion of details: people putting coins into a phone box, ordering beers at the bar of a sweaty student dance, or frowning over their books in the park as their friends chatter around them. Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” is about only the physical experience of being pregnant when you don’t want to be, and somehow is a tactile experience. It won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, Ms. Diwan herself has been nominated for a BAFTA, and all these awards are incredibly well deserved. A young woman trying to regain control of her body from an indifferent world is proven here to be something extraordinary.

It's the early ’60s. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is deep into final exam prep at the local high school – a boarding one, normal in France – where she has a cruel reputation as a slut. Her family is poor and her parents are almost disbelieving that people like themselves can have a daughter as bright as she is, with a wide-open future they can’t begin to imagine. Anne loves them, but is not made for the life their circumstances can provide. This unlucky combination of poverty and brains means she has only three friends, silent Helene (Luana Bajrami), frustrated Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and arrogant Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein). Unfortunately having a gang still doesn’t protect Anne from being publicly confronted with her “faults” by the kind of girls at every school who gain power by policing the others. But Anne doesn’t care about other people’s drama. All she wants is to pass the end-of-year exams, get into university and get out of this place.

The trouble is she realizes she’s missed a period. Her hometown doctor is sympathetic and doesn’t need to be told what Anne’s going to lose by having this baby. But his hands are tied; abortion is illegal, he will not risk his career by helping her and, after all, isn’t this her fault? So Anne looks for help elsewhere: another doctor, who does something abominable. Her boyfriend (Cyrille Metzger), who is so indifferent when confronted he doesn’t even shrug. (Marvelously, Anne just snarls at him and walks out the door.) She sells her books and jewelry outside the library to get some money. She hurts herself. All while going to class, dancing with boys at parties, eating meals with her parents, otherwise living her life so that on the surface everything seems normal. Ms. Vartolomei is extraordinary at using stillness to project her feelings externally, and excels at ensuring Anne’s frustration and intelligence are obvious, even when she’s saying nothing. The music is by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine, who did the music for “Loveless,” a similarly fraught film that also knows how to emphasize painful human feelings without making them overwhelming. Anne is so close to being overwhelmed, she can touch it. Her main professor (Pio Marmaï) notices something is up, but when she won’t say what he withdraws his assistance. When she does confide in her friends, they remind her that even discussing abortion is illegal and they want no part in it. But Anne does not want this baby. Nothing else matters.

Laurent Tanguy’s cinematography stays very close to her throughout, following her almost over the shoulder as she goes about her routines. This physical proximity adds a quiet intensity to everything that happens, and makes it impossible for the audience not to feel what Anne is feeling. As the days add up and the pressure mounts, Anne’s determination never curdles into self-pity, or even anger. It’s just a matter of fact. This pregnancy needs to end and in the face of this implacable insistence, every rejection stings like a whip. But Ms. Diwan, who cowrote the script with Marcia Romano, understood perfectly that the importance of this story can hardly be communicated with words. It can only be felt. As Anne raises her feet into stirrups, or tries to make small talk on the beach, or dutifully injects herself with a colossal syringe, or flirts with a hot fireman at the dance, we are there with her. This movie manages to erase the dividing line between itself and the audience, offering us the chance to experience this for ourselves. To describe it, words aren’t enough.


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