In the late stages of France’s first lockdown, strict hygiene regulations and a financial indemnity scheme were formed to protect the country’s screen industry from the effects of the pandemic. The result being that productions could comfortably shoot through the second half of 2020 for release in 2021, as other foreign screen industries remained grounded. This explains the quantity aspect of French independent cinema’s 2021 boon; where a gaggle of films courted international attention as they romped from festival to festival. And as for the quality of these films? You only need to look at the three most prominent and awarded exports, Petite Maman, Titane, and Happening—spearheaded respectively by veteran Cèline Sciamma and sophomores Julia Ducournau and Audrey Diwan—to see that the identity of French cinema in 2021 was undeniably female.
Each of these three films received attention from international distributors, a BAFTA nomination, and a starring role in the “big three” European festivals. Petite Maman‘s Golden Bear nomination at Berlin was just another feather in the cap of Sciamma’s chameleonic filmography on womanhood; this time telling a palatably sweet tale of childhood and friendship. Julia Ducournau broke Cannes’ system with a Palme d’Or win—previously only given to men individually—for the gnarly, brutal body horror Titane. And then there’s Diwan’s Happening. Somewhat in the others shadow. A Golden Lion winner in Venice last year, yet only now appearing in UK cinemas. To assume it is the weaker link based on its quieter reputation would be a mistake, for Diwan achieves something implausible with Happening; to split the difference between the styles of Sciamma and Ducournau. There’s the simplicity and naturalism of the former, drawing in time and space around her into an indelibly atmospheric piece; and there’s the white-knuckle, visceral filmmaking of the latter, daring you to look away at her conjured horrors. And despite those unexpected parallels, it is distinctly Diwan’s very own style.
Harrowing in its astute realism, Happening feels like a social persistence-hunt. Anna (Anamaria Vartolomei), a dedicated and well-liked student in 1960’s France, becomes afflicted with the “illness that turns a woman into a housewife.” Knowing that pregnancy will end her career before it’s even begun, she secretly seeks an abortion. Even before the news breaks to others, it feels like the world has started to track Anna; encircle her, trap her into a state of submission. Pregnancy is “fate”, and Anna is made the ultimate pariah for demanding otherwise. And Happening‘s greatest horror? That for its meticulous period setting, 60 years ago never feels as unfamiliar as it should.
For conservative 1960’s France is a world of conflict and hypocrisy. Doctors who proffer help for women with unwanted pregnancies instead infiltrate their bodies with unwanted drugs and substances. Men turn their back on Anna as they themselves try their luck, remarking mid-turn how sex would be safer when she is already pregnant. Women are supportive and isolating, depending on their interests; sexualising their worlds while prudish of the reality of the act. And then Anna exists in amongst the sprawl. She wants children, but also a life without them first. She’s shown enjoying sex completely independent to the meaning and narrative of her pregnancy and attempts at termination. It’s an uncommonly deft character study by Diwan in as difficult a film as this, holding one crucial truth at its centre. If Anna is a victim, she is not one of circumstance or because of her own decision making; she is actively victimised by the pernicious culture and people surrounding her.
Possibly the most impressive aspect of Happening is a technical one, achieved threefold and in service to the narrative. That is, the use of strictly subjective cinematography. Laurent Tangy expertly trains his camera on Anna, every shot of the film either being of herself or her point-of-view. Not only does he achieve a dizzying, claustrophobic effect of following Anna’s escalating crisis, but also demonstrates subjective cinematography at its most artistically distinct. Composition, lighting, motivation: at once in service to the ethos and a result of Tangy and his teams achieving the most beautiful thing possible. Vartolomei holds attention for all 100 minutes that the camera is focused directly on her, with a physical, magnetic performance that belies her young age. And finally, Diwan displays the rare capability of blocking long, one-take sequences of technical and emotional ingenuity, all while working under a dogmatic, high-concept shooting ethos. A technical feat, an emotional feat: Happening is a film that deserves to be spoken about as much as its contemporaries.