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The most talked-about 'Happening' is quite timely

One of the most talked-about movies from this year’s Sundance Film Festival is about to get a whole lot more attention.

It’s the French film Happening, based on a memoir by the writer Annie Ernaux about her attempt to get an abortion in 1960s France, when the procedure was illegal and severely punished, so much so that the people in the movie seem afraid to talk about it even in whispers. The movie’s version of Ernaux, named Anne Duchesne, is in her early 20s and studying for her university exams when she becomes pregnant after a fling. She’s a very good student and is considering becoming a teacher, and is absolutely not in a place where she can deal with pregnancy or a child, nor does she want her professional ambitions derailed. She first turns to doctors, who either instantly shut down her requests for an abortion or actively work against her wishes. And then, of course, she realizes she might have to do this alone.

It's a story we’ve seen before, which is not to say it’s not a story worth telling, but more that it’s another reminder of how many stories there are like this one. But what Happening does that’s also important is to place us with Anne the entire time, and to see both what she’s experiencing as a result of the situation, and also what life is like for young women at the time. She and her friends aren’t just afraid to talk about abortion, but seem terrified even to talk with each other about any sexual encounters they’ve had, lest they be painted as “loose women.” And we see how utterly alone Anne is as she tries to end her pregnancy, and how the walls close in on her as each week passes.

Happening doesn’t have the austere brutality of something like the astonishing Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—in fact, it’s even beautiful at times—but it regards Anne and her circumstances directly, and does not flinch at the most horrifying aspects of what she does to try to end her pregnancy. As we know, many people did not live to tell this tale, but we can listen to those who did.

Happening plays May 11th at the Wichita Art Museum, opens in theaters in Wichita on May 13th, and will be available on VOD on June 21st.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.