What happens to women who need abortions but live in a country where it’s illegal, prosecuted as a criminal offense and therefore nearly impossible to obtain? This harrowing predicament is the premise for the recently released film HAPPENING, a story set in France in 1963 but could very well be set in the United States in 2022 now that the Supreme Court has imposed this inevitable nightmare scenario on countless American women.
Anne is a college student studying literature with dreams of being a writer. Life is going very well for her and as a young woman pursuing her goals she is thriving in her independence. That is, until she finds out that she is pregnant. She then finds herself living a nightmarish existence simply because she can’t legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy and is initially unable to find anyone who will help her. The movie painstakingly portrays the mounting despair with each passing week as her unwanted pregnancy advances. And what HAPPENING captures so poignantly is the isolation that Anne must now endure as she is forced to keep her condition a secret. The few friends she confides in don’t show her much in the way of compassion and refuse to help for fear of being prosecuted. The man responsible for her pregnancy sees it as opportunity to have unlimited, on-demand sex since she can no longer get pregnant. Her doctors refuse to provide medical assistance and one betrays her by giving her pills that strengthened the fetus intentionally making it more difficult for her to abort the fetus. Anne is, of course, branded by her fellow students as being a loose woman for being sexually active thereby increasing her desperation and loneliness. She is the victim of the hypocrisy of a sexually repressive and patriarchal culture that encourages men to be sexually active but punishes women for seeking sexual pleasure.
The film is graphic in its depiction of the brutality of an illegal abortion. But it’s depicted in a way so it’s not mere gratuitous violence. It serves a purpose in portraying the physical danger that women will be forced to endure when this is the only option available. Watching this film, it’s impossible not to think of the grim reality that American women may soon be forced contend with. How much progress have women really made since this story takes place? Are American women really that much better off since the era of second-wave feminism? It seems as if on many different facets of our lives that we are losing many of our hard-fought for gains. Less than five years after the start of the #Metoo movement, there is a disturbing backlash against the momentous cultural shift that had been made in taking women’s claims of sexual abuse and harassment seriously. And we now sit on a precipice of losing our basic reproductive rights, to be stripped of our humanity by the Supreme Court, and to be reduced to mere baby producing vessels. It was while sitting as a justice on this very court that Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously said: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being or dignity…When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
HAPPENING is one of the most effective horror films that has played in a theater for a very long time. And it’s no exaggeration to describe this as a horror movie as it spares the viewer very little in its portrayal of the terror that Anne experiences as her very existence is threatened and her world is turned upside down. But Anne may not be the final girl in this on-going horror story. Perhaps there will be a happy ending for what seems to be an endless saga in the fight for women’s basic reproduction rights. But at this moment all signs point towards this movie ending badly.
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