‘Happening’ Review: An Abortion Story, an Existential Drama

Her body, her choice, her life. That’s the unambiguous refrain that runs through “Happening,” a powerful French drama about a woman seeking an abortion. Set in the early 1960s, when the procedure was criminalized in France, it arrives in the United States at a fraught moment, with the Supreme Court seemingly poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. When I first saw the movie, it felt like a warning shot from a still-distant land. Now it feels urgently of the moment.

The world seems lush with possibilities for Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei, restrained and deeply empathetic), a 23-year-old student attending school in the southwest. There, she lives in a women’s dorm, hangs out with friends and sometimes goes with them to a bar, where she drinks and flirts and bobs to the rock ’n’ roll. Sometimes, she visits her reserved but loving parents (Sandrine Bonnaire plays her mother), who own a bistro, a welcoming space that she inhabits freely, whether she’s chatting with customers or studying in the back. But Anne’s horizons extend beyond her family’s. She wants to continue her studies. She wants to write.

The director Audrey Diwan quickly makes you want the same for Anne by inviting you into a life that has just begun to bloom. With visual intimacy, calm rhythms and a sensitive touch, Diwan traces its textures and rituals, drops in on lectures and catches the intellectual hum. By day, Anne and her friends casually discuss Camus and Sartre. Later, though, when their talk turns to sex, these young, capable women stammer and even panic, and the palpable heat that they’ve stirred up — simply by being young and alive — condenses into an oppressive fog. It might help if they were reading Beauvoir, but she’s not on the curriculum.

Based on the short, impressionistic memoir by the same title from the celebrated French writer Anne Ernaux, “Happening” recounts what it was like to be a young woman whose life changed — and world ominously narrowed — in 1963 with an unwanted pregnancy. In her book (published in 2000), Ernaux shifts between the past and the present, often commenting on what she did and felt decades earlier. Her approach underscores the memoir’s tension between its two time periods and its distinctly drawn subjects, but also puts the past at an emotional remove: The young Annie struggles under the coolly intellectual, contemplative gaze of her older self.