“Two female friends seeking an abortion for one of them in a time or place where abortions are hard to obtain” by now constitutes a movie subgenre all its own. The first that comes to mind, and maybe the best of the lot, is Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the brilliant 2007 film about a pair of roommates who go on a grueling descent into the underworld of Ceausescu-era Bucharest. In 2020’s excellent Never Rarely Sometimes Always, directed by Eliza Hittman and set in the present day, a pregnant Pennsylvania teen and her cousin take a barely affordable and none-too-safe trek across state lines and through a bewildering maze of red tape.* Other recent films, like Natalie Morales’ Plan B and Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant, have turned the difficulty of terminating a pregnancy in 2020s America into the stuff of raunchy road-trip buddy comedy. And though its primary storyline centers on a forbidden lesbian romance, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a surprise arthouse hit on its US release in 2020, also contains a subplot in which the two high-born lovers help a third woman, the housemaid of one of them, find a local practitioner who will give her as safe and gentle an abortion as could be obtained in 18th-century Brittany.
In the exceptional new French film Happening (L’Evènement), adapted by Audrey Diwan from an autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, the unhappily pregnant young woman at the movie’s center, a bright university student named Anne (the astonishing Anamaria Vartolomei), has no road-trip buddy, no cousin, no sympathetic employer or high-school bestie to help her find her way through the maddening labyrinth of trying to end a pregnancy in 1963 Angoulême. Anne is entirely alone, abandoned to what’s seen as her inevitable fate in turn by friends, doctors, and, when she finally summons up the courage to call him, the young man who got her pregnant—not her boyfriend, but a student in a distant town who is barely mature or empathetic enough to get why her situation even constitutes a problem.
Anne never considers telling her parents about her dilemma, even though they appear to have a generally loving and close relationship. A wordless scene of three of them laughing as they listen to a radio comedy show is one of this hard-to-sit-through movie’s few lighthearted moments. Perhaps she keeps her condition a secret because she comes from a working-class family—her mother (the legendary Sandrine Bonnaire) works as a bartender in their small provincial town—that lacks the resources to offer help. Or maybe she fears they would object on religious grounds, though none of the characters in Happening who fail to respond to Anne’s ever more frantic pleas for help ever cites faith as the reason.
The script, by Diwan and Marcia Romano, establishes with a minimum of dialogue how, in Anne and her classmates’ world, abortion is simply not a word to be spoken aloud, both for fear of legal reprisal (French law at the time made it a crime to aid anyone seeking the procedure) and because, for young women especially, the admission that they even know such an option exists poses a threat to their already fragile position in the social order. The word is never uttered by any character in Happening: Instead there is talk of a “solution,” spoken of in whispered tones and quickly dismissed. When the boy who impregnated her asks in exasperation what it is Anne wants from him, her one-word reply—“help”—comes in a voice hoarse with exhaustion and despair.
Happening moves like a suspense thriller, with titles appearing on the screen to chart the advancement of Anne’s pregnancy week by week as she methodically and unsuccessfully tries every method available to her to end it: visits to two doctors, one who turns her away and one who, even more cruelly, lies to her about the contents of the injection he administers. Not one but two encounters with a gruff, no-nonsense housewife (Anna Mouglalis) who doubles as a back-alley abortionist. An excruciating-to-watch attempt to do the job herself with what appears to be a knitting needle sterilized by fire. The scenes where Anne or someone else attempts these home remedies are never exploitative, but fair warning: They are graphic, in one case showing the entire procedure in an unbroken four-minute shot.
Since it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last fall, Happening has been sparking conversations in France about the country’s history with abortion, which was illegal until 1975, two years after the Roe v. Wade ruling made it legal in the United States. A law passed earlier this year, after a bitter parliamentary battle, extended the limit for terminating a pregnancy from 12 to 14 weeks. During his successful campaign for re-election, French president Emmanuel Macron opposed this extension, insisting in one controversial speech that abortion, while an important right, is a “tragedy for women.” As Happening makes gruesomely clear, it is instead the lack of access to safe and stigma-free reproductive healthcare that leads to tragedy for everyone involved.
The fact that Happening opens in the U.S. today, the same week that a leaked draft of an upcoming Supreme Court opinion made it clear that abortion rights in the U.S. are likely soon to revert to their pre-1973 state, makes it beyond timely. This film’s honesty and urgency feel both providential and grimly prophetic. There are Annes all across America right now, promising young women at the beginning of their lives staring down a future of unconsented-to gestation and birth and unwanted motherhood. They, too, will try every method available to them to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. They, too, will struggle and suffer and bleed. And in the many places where abortion remains an unspeakable word, many of them, like this movie’s terrified but dauntless heroine, will go through it all completely alone. Every judge, legislator, and activist now working to place more people in that intolerable position should be forced to watch Happening all the way through, eyes open. It’s the least they can do, given the far more traumatic and life-altering experience they are trying to force on one-half the population.
Correction, May 10, 2022: This article originally misstated when Never Rarely Sometimes Always was released. It was 2020, not 2021.