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Timely and urgent, 'Happening' is a film that speaks to today's abortion debate

Based on an autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, Happening unfolds over several weeks in the life of Anne, a 23-year-old literature student in the French town of Angoulême, who discovers she's pregnant after a brief fling.



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Other segments from the episode on May 6, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 6, 2022: Interview with Pamela Adlon; Review of 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds'; Review of film 'Happening.'



This is FRESH AIR. Arriving the same week as the news that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade next month, the French movie "Happening" tells the story of a young woman trying to get an illegal abortion. Our film critic, Justin Chang, says that while the story takes place in early 1960s France, it could scarcely feel more of the moment. The movie won the top prize at last year's Venice International Film Festival and opens in theaters this week. Here is his review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It would be hard to overstate the timeliness of the new abortion-themed drama "Happening." Then again, this harrowing movie, directed with great tension and intimacy by the French filmmaker Audrey Diwan, would feel timely and urgent under any circumstances. Based on a memoir by Annie Ernaux, it unfolds over several weeks in the life of Anne, a 23-year-old literature student in the French town of Angouleme, who discovers she's pregnant after a brief fling. It's 1963. And most working-class women in Anne's position would be forced to drop out of school, give up their careers and/or get married. But Anne doesn't want to do any of those things. She wants to continue her studies. And so she decides to seek out an abortion, even though the procedure is illegal.

Anne is played by the superb French Romanian actor Anamaria Vartolomei, whose piercing blue eyes register her character's mounting desperation. But behind that terror, she also shows us Anne's quiet determination. I'll manage, Anne tends to say whenever she encounters a setback, which is often. The father in question doesn't care what she does about the pregnancy, so long as it doesn't involve him. Anne sees two male doctors. The first is sympathetic to her situation but unable to help. The second prescribes her shots that he says will start her period. She later finds out he lied and the drugs have actually strengthened the embryo. Anne turns to some of her school friends for help, but they give her the cold shoulder. A male classmate makes a pass at her, figuring that since she's already pregnant, she might as well throw caution to the wind.

"Happening" is especially perceptive in portraying the social stigma of being a sexually active woman in the early '60s. Anne's friends think and talk about sex constantly, while remaining extremely judgmental of anyone who actually has sex. In one uncomfortable scene, Anne is harassed in the dorm showers by a classmate who accuses her of being a loose woman and spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Many of these details come directly from Ernaux's memoir. And Diwan and her co-writer, Marcia Romano, bring us deep inside Anne's experience. We are with her at every step, as her body begins to change and her academics and relationships begin to suffer.

The movie becomes a clock-ticking thriller, with regular on-screen reminders of how many weeks she is into her pregnancy. The camera follows Anne in long, uninterrupted tracking shots that create a remarkable level of tension. That tension kicks into overdrive when Anne takes matters into her own hands, first by attempting the abortion herself and then by turning to the black market. These scenes are not for the faint of heart. But as graphic as they are, they never feel exploitative.

"Happening" joins a strong field of abortion-themed movies, including the 2007 drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days" and the more recent "Never Rarely Sometimes Always." In each of these movies, we see a young woman struggling to deal with an impossible situation, whether in communist Romania or present-day Manhattan. "Happening" itself sometimes feels ambiguous in terms of its setting. You can tell the era from the actors' clothes and the payphones. But Diwan doesn't overdo the '60s trappings. It's as if she's saying, this recreation of the past might very well be a window into the future.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Happening," opening in theaters today. On Monday's show, actress Rosie Perez. She's currently co-starring in the HBO Max series "The Flight Attendant." She was discovered at the age of 19 dancing at a nightclub and became a dancer on "Soul Train." Spike Lee chose her for the role of his girlfriend in his film "Do The Right Thing" after getting in an argument with her at a club. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "JABULA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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