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"Happening" is based on a memoir by 2022 Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux

Audrey Kupferberg, seated at a desk in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg

For more than a century, films have been produced that are based on great works of literature. Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens. As early as 1910, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was made into a silent film, and, if you are in a Halloween frame of mind, you can view this production of the Edison Manufacturing Company online.

Happening is a more recent example of an adaptation of outstanding writing from words on paper to shadows on the screen. It’s a French feature film that is based on a memoir by Annie Ernaux, the recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first French woman to receive this prize. The film was released in November 2021, and hasn’t received as much attention in the United States as it merits. In Europe, kudos were given before its commercial release when it was awarded the Golden Lion at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.

Happening is a solid, quality drama. Still, there is another reason that American audiences should see HAPPENING. The story of Happening focuses on a young woman’s plight when she becomes pregnant after a casual fling. Anne is a bright young university student who plans to major in Literature and become a writer.

Her pregnancy is a jolt, definitely unwanted. Bringing the pregnancy to full term would capsize Anne’s future; she believes that her plans to become a writer and remain independent would disappear. At eighteen or so, she would turn into a housewife in a marriage to a young man she barely knows.

It’s 1963. Abortion is illegal in France. To speak of it to her friends would implicate them in a crime. She cannot tell her parents, and the young man she slept with is a dead end. Anne’s world evolves into a series of misadventures, a drug from a doctor, then a visit to a back-alley abortionist. If she has an illegal abortion and it’s detrimental to her health, she will wind up in the hospital. There her predicament will be labeled “miscarriage” or “abortion.” If the diagnosis is “abortion,” she goes to jail.

Happening, or L’Evenement, the film’s original French title, is an unusually candid drama. It takes the viewer deep into the events of Anne’s life, her eroding mental state and her physical attrition as well. The details are disturbing. She is distracted in the classroom where she used to be a diligent student; she is isolated from the people in her world. The viewer shares Anne’s experiences with her changing body. Happening is not a film for the squeamish. There are sex scenes that are tasteful, but there also is nudity that is not related to making love.

I never have seen a commercial entertainment so explicit in terms of what could happen to a woman with an unwanted pregnancy in a world in which abortion is illegal. It reminds me of the kind of serious, woman-oriented dramas that Ida Lupino dared to direct in the late forties and early fifties. The genre for Happening is listed as drama-thriller. It’s a scary thriller in a very realistic sense.

Annie Ernaux’s original memoir was published in French in 2000 and translated as Happening in 2001. Anamaria Vartolomei scores in this film as Anne; it’s an effective, underplayed performance. Audrey Diwan directed and co-wrote the screenplay; she is someone whose career I’ll be watching from now on. Happening is available for streaming and on disc.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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