★★★★☆ French director Audrey Diwan adapts Annie Erwaux’s 2001 autobiographical book about her traumatic experience of an abortion in 1963 France. Happening is a naturalistic, heart-breaking and relentless account of the multiple traumas and injustices that cascade when women are denied their basic bodily autonomy.

★★★★☆

In her second feature, French director Audrey Diwan adapts Annie Erwaux’s 2001 autobiographical book about her traumatic experience of an abortion in 1963 France. Happening is a naturalistic, heart-breaking and relentless account of the multiple traumas and injustices that cascade when women are denied their basic bodily autonomy.

Student Anne (Anamaria Vortolomei) wants what most young people want: to find creative and intellectual fulfilment, to party with her friends, to love, to desire, to be desired. Happening opens with an example of the latter as she gets dressed up for a night out with friends Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro). Tightening each others’ bra straps for maximum effect, they tease Anne about her dubious moral reputation while revelling in their own desirability.

Yet when they arrive at the bar, Anne is a model of restraint, brushing off the attentions of local fireman on the prowl to instead skulk with her male friend Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), both nursing Cokes. It’s only later that we realise the reason for Anne’s low mood: her period is late. A visit to the doctor’s surgery confirms her fears and while she protests that she has never even had sex, a virgin birth seems unlikely. A promising student with her life ahead of her, Anne has no intention of keeping the pregnancy, but in 1963 legal abortion in France was still 12 years away, and could land anyone assisting in one in prison.

Her terror at being stuck with an unwanted child is compounded by the outwardly conservative attitudes of her peers. Hélène and Brigitte warn Anne not to even joke about abortion, while Jean, who almost certainly knows someone who could help her, initially refuses before using her condition to manipulate her into sleeping with him. Meanwhile, the doctors she visits range from sympathetic but fearful of the law, to the heartlessly cruel GP who prescribes her a drug to help the embryo grow, falsely telling her it will cause a miscarriage.

Cinematographer Laurent Tangy balances a naturalistic, handheld aesthetic with subtly artful compositions. Meanwhile, the intimacy with which his camera hugs Anne borders on the uncomfortable in a way that underscores her repressed, jangling unease. The frequent nudity of Anne and her associates in a variety of contexts, as well as the explicit and often painful medical scenes, further emphasises both the messy reality of bodies as well as the constant, thoughtless commodification and exposure of women’s bodies.

Diwan gradually dissolves the lines dividing cowardice, moral hypocrisy and self preservation, revealing a society existing wholesale under the tyranny of an unjust law. Oppression functions by forcing its subjects to internalise it: so it goes with Anne’s relationship with her repressed, conservative mother, as well as good girl Hélène who reveals in a key moment an affair she had with an older man, escaping Anne’s fate through good fortune alone.

Just as tyranny often functions quietly, so too does resistance, as with Anne’s unpleasant dorm mate Olivia (Louise Chevillotte). who is the only one there for her during the film’s most graphic sequence. Happening may make uncomfortable and possibly triggering viewing, but in a lunatic world where women’s rights to their own bodies is once again being torn from them, it is also essential.

Christopher Machell