Happening

A student (Anamarie Vartolomei) becomes pregnant in 1963 France, where abortion is illegal, in "Happening."

The phrase “unfortunately timely” doesn’t begin to cover the fact that French filmmaker Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” is hitting U.S. theaters, including AMC Madison 6 and Marcus Point in Madison, just as the country grapples with the near-certainty that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade this year.

Or maybe the phrase should be “fortunately timely.” Art has a way of turning the abstract into the concrete, and “Happening” cuts past the rhetoric and presents a wrenchingly frank depiction of what it’s like for a young woman to become pregnant in a country where abortion is illegal.

That country is France in 1963, and “Happening” is based on Annie Ernaux’s biographical novel of the same name. Anne (Anamarie Vartolomei) is a promising literature student from a family of modest means, hoping to become a teacher or even a writer.

She’s also a young woman who enjoys going out with her friends, dancing to rock ‘n’ roll in bars, and having sex. Diwan presents female sexual desire as something to be celebrated, not feared, and certainly not criminalized.

When Anne discovers she is newly pregnant, the panic in her blue eyes is palpable. Much of “Happening” plays like a Cold War thriller, as Anne struggles with increasing desperation to hide her pregnancy and seek an abortion. The fear in the society around her is palpable; she can’t tell her friends what she’s going through, and doctors (all male) refuse to listen to her, fearful that they’ll be sent to prison along with her. She even has to speak in code like a spy, telling one doctor, “I want to continue my studies.” He knows what she means but can’t say.

Diwan ratchets up the tension, as title cards count off how far along Anne is (“3 Weeks,” “4 Weeks,” “5 Weeks”). The camera is on Vartolomei at virtually every moment, either looking at her or looking past her to see what she sees. The result is that we are locked in with Anne’s harrowing plight, as she turns to more and more dangerous methods to end her pregnancy.

“Happening” reminded me a lot of Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” in which an American teenage girl had to navigate our country’s web of parental notification laws and other restrictions to get an ostensibly legal medical procedure. That ordeal seems paltry compared to what Anne goes through in “Happening,” and what that American teenager might go through in a few years.

Early on in "Happening,” Anne is in class dissecting a poem written during World War II, saying the poet “uses a lover’s drama to evoke a national one.” Diwan performs the same feat in “Happening,” using one girl’s journey to evoke a chilling past and possible future for women.

In “Happening,” such a dystopia isn’t like it’s portrayed in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with ornamental robes and big speeches and a bold struggle against oppression. It’s small, it’s cruel, it’s sad, and it’s real.