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The abortion drama ‘Happening’ is an agonizing true-life thriller

Annie Ernaux’s 2000 memoir about her illegal abortion in the 1960s is the basis of this urgent French film.

Anamaria Vartolomei in "Happening." (IFC Films)
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(3.5 stars)

In “Happening,” a promising young college student named Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) discovers, to her dismay, that she is pregnant, after a sexual encounter that occurred before the events of the French film. Set in 1963, when abortion was still illegal in France — and when vigorous prosecution could result in prison for the patient or the practitioner (often not a doctor) — the story follows, in harrowing detail and without moral judgment, Anne’s efforts to terminate her pregnancy.

It’s a timely, even urgent tale, made more so by the recent news that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The dangers Anne encounters — which aren’t just legal jeopardy, but grave medical risk and societal disapproval — are frightening, yet Audrey Diwan’s unflinching film is based on the eponymous 2000 memoir by Annie Ernaux (maiden name: Duchesne), who herself had an illegal abortion while in college and lived to tell the tale. So the nerve-racking nature of the events depicted is somewhat mitigated by context. Ernaux’s book has been adapted for the screen by Diwan and Marcia Romano, with the participation of Anne Berest, in a spare and almost cinéma vérité style that shows us events from Anne’s perspective. Vartolomei is excellent in the role, with an open, wide-eyed countenance that allows us access to every flickering emotion, from terror to resolve. The film unspools with on-screen titles that track the weeks of her pregnancy, with increasing levels of tension that add just a dash of the suspense thriller.

Once taboo, abortion emerges from the cinematic shadows

Anne is almost entirely on her own here. The first in her family to attend college, she’s afraid to confide in her parents (Sandrine Bonnaire and Eric Verdin), who, like Ernaux’s family, run a small cafe. Doctors aren’t helpful, nor is the young man who got her pregnant (Julien Frison). Anne also gets no help, at least initially, from two of her best friends (Luàna Bajrami and Louise Orry-Diquéro), one of whom observes, after Anne confides in them about her pregnancy, that “it’ll be the end of the world.”

Accurate or not, that dramatic prediction comes perilously close to fruition, after Anne’s friend Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein) connects the protagonist with a Mme. Rivière (Anna Mouglalis), a shady — and not especially compassionate — woman who is willing to perform the illegal procedure for 400 francs, which Anne raises by selling her textbooks and belongings. (Early in the film, Jean crassly suggests that Anne permit him to have sex with her because there’s no risk. His later assistance only partly redeems the character’s unsavory behavior.)

Anne’s journey is a tough one, and includes her own attempt to abort with a knitting needle. Yes, it’s hard to watch, but so are the two (yes, two) attempts by the back-alley abortionist, and their gut-wrenching aftermath. “I’d like a child one day,” Anne says, “but not instead of a life.” The film is a sobering reminder that the consequences of limiting access to safe medical care aren’t just theoretical but existential.

R. At the AFI Silver and Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains disturbing material, sexual images and graphic nudity. In French with subtitles. 100 minutes.