Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Period Piece: HAPPENING

Let’s start with the title. In France it’s L’Événement, most directly translated as The Event. That thunks down with a vague sturdiness, a noun—singular, direct, simple, immovable, object. For English-speaking release the title becomes Happening. Shorn of the article it takes on a doubled meaning. On the one hand, it could still play the noun: an occurrence, or the act of occurring. On the other, it could play a verb: to occur, to become, to chance. Now it’s something in the process of happening—not distant past, but inescapably present. In any case, here’s a movie about a young woman and what happens to her, and through her. It’s a movie set in the past, but told in a sharp, unblinking present tense. Fittingly, it’s about a literature student, who might appreciate the deceptively complicated title of her story, and the tension its telling wrings from tenses.

But what is the event, the happening, of the title? Is it the one-night stand that happens before the film begins? Is it the pregnancy that unluckily resulted from this first-time, one-time affair? Is it when she discovers her period is three weeks late? Is it when she seeks to quietly find a way to procure an abortion? Or is it what ultimately becomes of her? The movie is set in 1963, a time when abortion was not only illegal in France, but carried with it a potential punishment for the woman who would seek one. A knowledgeable, slightly older woman tells our lead that, worst case, she should hope the hospital will mark it down as a miscarriage. Otherwise, if the doctor writes “abortion,” she’ll go to prison. With these the stakes, it is no wonder there’s extra unease in this girl. Anamaria Vartolomei plays her with timid confidence, her big expressive eyes darting, watering, glowering, haunted. She’s struggling to find a way to avoid letting one mistake—one event, one happening—determine the course of her life. She checks her body—examines herself, feels unknowable to herself, out of control as what she once saw as her future possibilities threaten to slip away.

We see her studious potential—speaking capably in class, and hoping to be a teacher or a writer or both. We see her hanging out with friends or meekly eying cute guys at a dance club pounding early-60s rock. And all throughout, there’s that growing sense of dread within her. You can almost see the walls of her potential futures shrink and foreclose as possible solutions and choices are closed off. One doctor flat out tells her: “you have no choice.” You can’t even talk about this option. A friend to whom she timidly asks a hypothetical—what if you go too far and become pregnant?—quickly brushes her off. Don’t even joke about that. Another doctor offers her an injection that’ll encourage menstruation. (Why it doesn’t work is a grim surprise.) All along, she’s drawn inevitably to an underground solution—hoping against hope for a name or a number that’ll get her an off-the-record procedure. If that can’t work out, she just might have to take matters into her own hands. The movie counts up the weeks since her last period—a looming deadline underlined by the film’s anxious plucked-strings score.

Here’s a movie whose value is not in the general shape of the story—abortion testimonies aren’t uncommon—but in the great specificities it brings. (In centering so richly this one young person’s experience, it’s the retro Gallic cousin to the great, expertly empathetic modern American indie Never Rarely Sometimes Always.) Too often, in contemplating a time when abortion was illegal—and, oh, how sad to watch this movie from Spring 2022 in the United States, where we are on the precipice of being thrown back into that uncertain, dangerous state by those who prioritize a potential life over a present one—we drape these stories in euphemism and buzzwords. Here, instead, is an experience, an undeniable dilemma and personal decision made all the worse by the cold cruelties of the state denying this woman that choice. It’s far more dangerous that way. Not that the people in charge care. Here’s a movie that looks and looks and looks. (No coincidence, surely, that one scene finds these literary students decide a particular author’s prose is “all about the gaze.”) It has a pinprick precision and minimalism of a tight short story, or a memory. The value is in its willingness to see and recognize.

Sparse and simple, the movie sketches side characters in a moment, builds out emotional terrains with a glance, or a telling, lingering, observant extra frame. Writer-director Audrey Diwan keeps her camera tight on Vartolomei’s face, body, legs, shoulders. She sees the weight and the worry, the gravity and the concern, as the girl pokes and prods at her possibilities, and stares at herself in the mirror with growing discomfort. The movie may play some standard tricks of the usual sad, small character piece, but its focus is strong, and admirable, and wholly compelling. It is aesthetically circumspect—unafraid to be unblinking, but restrained enough to tilt and pan to preserve some dignity amidst its harrowing and revealing long takes of exposure. And it’s narratively narrow. The story has little room for asides, and the ensemble exists as a variety sampler of ways the silence shrouding what should be a legal and accessible procedure manifests in interpersonal interactions, how an unwillingness to look at this happening can leave so many endangered in the dark. This movie is a little window of light into this darkness—and perhaps its most upsetting idea is the slow realization that we’re watching something of a best-case scenario given the circumstances. She has no other choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment