Happening movie review: Sublime, in the truest sense of the word

·2-min read
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Audrey Diwan’s French-language abortion drama has already been recognised as a major piece of film-making (it won the top prize at Venice; more recently, Diwan was nominated for a Best Director Bafta). Sublime, in the truest sense of the word, it offers a take on the swinging 60s that contains images as gorgeous an anything in a Monet painting, as well as details so ugly you may keep forgetting to breathe.

The script’s based on a semi-autobiographical novel by French icon Annie Ernaux. French-Romanian actress Anamaria Vartolomei (as bright-eyed as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom) is formidable as gifted working-class teenager, Anne. Studying literature in Angouleme, Anne is determined to go to university and seems as cool as a cucumber, even when she discovers she’s pregnant. She knows abortions are illegal but is sure doctors and/or her pals, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and Helene (Luana Bajrami), will come to her rescue.

So many brilliant directors/writers, when touching on the issue of unwanted pregnancies, play up the importance of female friendship (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; you couldn’t ask for more loyal BFs than the ones you see in those movies). Happening, though, is more interested in the generosity of strangers.

One memorable figure is abortionist Mme Riviere (Anna Mouglalis). In the history of cinema, no back street medical practitioner has ever looked as glamorous (Mouglalis, in the past, has played Coco Chanel and Juliette Greco). She also has a kind of swagger and, as she goes to work, could be a brave soldier, caught up in a particularly fraught moment of battle.

Happening often has the air of a war movie, but if that makes the universe Diwan has created sound morally black and white, it isn’t. Anne can’t confide in her bar-owning mother Gabrielle (a magnificent Sandrine Bonnaire), presumably because her mother views abortion as a crime. Yet Gabrielle is never presented as weak or narrow-minded. Glowing with warmth and intelligence, as tough as Nomadland’s Fern, Gabrielle is simply a different kind of pioneer.

You can see why Chloe Zhao and Bong Joon-ho (both members of the Venice panel who voted, unanimously, for Happening) were drawn to this movie. Diwan is a fan of long takes. Yes, she takes her time, but her subtle thriller doesn’t waste a second of ours.

100mins, 15

In cinemas

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