Happening is a bold, clear-eyed abortion drama

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America looms over Audrey Diwan’s Happening. The film is set in Angoulême, south-west France, but the year is 1963, and the students here are besotted with the transatlantic exports of chewing gum and rock’n’roll. Now, in 2022 this bold, clear-eyed drama, which won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is about to come out in the US just as landmark pro-choice legislation Roe vs Wade appears set to be undone. The headlines make a sombre context for a story that deals with abortion when the procedure carries the risk of jail. (The film is based on the 2000 memoir of writer Annie Ernaux.)

At first, it makes absolute sense why the gaze of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei, superb) often falls in the middle distance. She is 23 and a gifted English student; the future is clearly calling for a smart young woman poised to become a teacher.

Only a little way into the film does Diwan include the first of several title cards: “Three Weeks.” They explain why Anne is somewhere else in her head, detailing how far she is into an unplanned pregnancy she decides to end despite the illegality of abortion. Time proves remorseless in those tick-tock title cards; doctors are sympathetic but deceptive; former friends primly judgmental.

Not a moment feels didactic, and Anne never seems like a case study. Instead, the film thrums with the practical resolve of a young woman desperate to begin her own life before creating another. The longer the movie plays, the more claustrophobic the camerawork becomes, the harsher the clamour of noise around Anne — the sight and sound of an unforgiving past.

★★★★☆

In UK cinemas from April 22 and in US cinemas from May 6

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