Happening

Happening ★★★★

Umbilical

Phew, a depressing ordeal of an abortion picture that's actually competently crafted. I was worried there given all the praise "Happening" has been receiving, including winning the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, and largely for reasons I assumed were counter to what I look for in movies. (Of course, I'll edit this if I'm proven wrong after reading some reviews before posting mine.) That is, I'm guessing critics are praising it far and wide largely as a pro-choice polemic, ever serendipitous, ever timely, always "happening" now, as these things are claimed to be, in this case with the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S., as if that mattered as to whether it's any good as art. Additionally, sure, it's a harrowing quest of a coming-of-age story of a teenager seeking an illicit termination of her pregnancy in pre-Sexual Revolution 1960s France (a scene of the "tease" of a friend masturbating in front of her friends ostensibly as a demonstration sums up the obliviousness of the period well) and featuring a physically dedicated and personally intimate performance from Anamaria Vartolomei in the lead, but two important things elevate this one above most others of its kind that I've been catching up on lately.

First, there's the camera which is constantly beside Vartolemei's Anne, as if they were connected at the hip, usually looking over her shoulder, only turning to share her gaze--as if tied to her by umbilical cord. Presented in a claustrophobic, womb-like Academy ratio. The pregnant camera, the embryonic film, and through identification with the gaze of the cinematographic apparatus, the intrauterine spectator, all confined to the body of Anne. These tight tracking shots actually mean something. Content meets form. No "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (2007), say, where the dull long takes as mixed with ugly dark tracking shots are a mere preference of a filmmaker copying others in the slow cinema film festival tradition. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" (2020) was closer to this, but more clinical in approach with its technical legality as opposed to back-alley horrors. The picture builds tension instead of being merely excruciating as a result of this sense of connection with the protagonist. The only mistake, I was afraid, was that after the actual climactic cut, the camera continues to stick close to Anne. But, I believe this works because of the second important success here.

Second, this is reflexively a story written by the character it's about. Anne states that she wants to be a writer. She also specifies she doesn't want to be a teacher, something I'm sure some critics will overlook in their readings of lesson plans and teachable moments. Writing as the perfect solitary profession for one who goes about it on her own in terminating her pregnancy to the point that she even researches how she might perform the operation on herself. Indeed, the movie is based on a memoir by Annie Ernaux. It's even divided by chapter-like title cards informing how many weeks into the pregnancy we are. Note, then, when we, that is the camera, finally leave her. It's when she puts pen to paper. That's when the symbolic cinematic umbilical cord is cut, to black. A writer overcoming her ordeal through her craft, a movie accomplishing the same through its. "Happening" is so elegant in its simple persistence that it's a wonder most movies fail to grasp such fundamentals. It should be put in the form of quiz questions every filmmaker should be able to answer before proceeding with their production: what is the narrative purpose and what is the role of the camera?

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