Abortion is illegal and means a prison term if you’re lucky

Sexual intercourse began in 1963, Philip Larkin said, but he was talking specifically about England as opposed to central France. At the university in Angoulême, everyone is thinking about sex and talking about sex but it appears that no one, God forbid, is actually having any sex. To do so risks calamity, a sudden end to all their dreams.

The excellent Happening, which screens in Venice competition, documents one woman’s efforts to arrange a termination and thereby continue with her studies. Adapted from Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel, the film plays its private trauma as a harrowing thriller, and showcases a superb performance from Anamaria Vartolomei as Anne Duchesne, the agonised student in the spotlight. We meet her spineless boyfriend only briefly; the man is all but incidental. Anne has to go through this ordeal on her own.

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It’s April 1963. Abortion is illegal and means a prison term if you’re lucky, death if you’re not. But Anne’s period is now five weeks late and she’s increasingly desperate: failing her studies, too scared to confide in her friends. A supposedly sympathetic doctor prescribes a drug he assures her will induce a miscarriage but is in fact designed to further strengthen the foetus. Director Audrey Diwan keeps the camera in close as Anne pinwheels between cafes and the classes; the family home and the dorm. She’d love a child at some point but she wants a life and career first. The picture’s tight framing is like a noose around her neck.

Olivia Colman’s full-throttle turn in The Lost Daughter remains the unofficial favourite to win the acting prize here, but 22-year-old Vartolomei would make a good outside bet. She portrays Anne as a working-class student who dreams of a career in academia; a strong, intense woman who’s scared half out of her wits. Nobody will help her; everyone is running scared. Boisterous Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) prattles about boys constantly and masturbates for show on her bed in the dorm. But the very mention of pregnancy throws her into panic. “It’s the end of the world,” she says flatly.

Time is running out; Anne is nearly three months along. Outside the halls of residence, it’s the time of rock’n’roll and the nouvelle vague. But Happening depicts a France still eerily coloured by Nazi occupation, where the trade in illegal abortion has become the new army in the shadows, arranged via code names and whispered meetings in the park. “Smile,” Anne is instructed when somebody ambles by, as if she has anything to feel especially happy about. It’s a serious, gripping and finally honourable film.

Teenage Hatzin is on his way home with his father’s remains in a box when he looks out the window and sees a familiar face on the street. He jumps off the bus and the man turns around. If the box contains Esteban, then who’s this guy, Mario? And if Mario is his father, then who the hell’s in the box?

Rest assured that these questions will be addressed and responded to during the course of La Caja, the closing part of Venezuelan writer-director Lorenzo Vigas’s acclaimed trilogy about the fraught, shifting relationship between fathers and sons. Vigas’s last instalment, From Afar, took the top prize here in Venice back in 2015, although since then the jury has swung towards bigger and splashier fare. La Caja – a tale of physical and spiritual deserts – may be too modest and stolid to trouble the scoreboard this year. But it has important things to say and by and large says them well.

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Big, bearlike Mario (Hernan Mendoza) may not be Hatzin’s father but is gruffly content to play the part for a while. He’s kind and warm-hearted and takes the boy under his wing. But Mario – in at least one respect – is not entirely as he presents himself. He makes a dodgy, lucrative living funnelling migrant workers into the garment factories of northern Mexico and is not above robbing trucks to support his own business ventures. When Hatzin (Hatzin Navarette) gently objects to the way in which he cons the machinists out of their promised weekly wage, the man is exasperated. “You are too honest,” he tells him. “Don’t you ever lie?”
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Olivia Colman’s full-throttle turn in The Lost Daughter remains the unofficial favourite to win the acting prize here, but 22-year-old Vartolomei would make a good outside bet. She portrays Anne as a working-class student who dreams of a career in academia; a strong, intense woman who’s scared half out of her wits. Nobody will help her; everyone is running scared. Boisterous Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) prattles about boys constantly and masturbates for show on her bed in the dorm. But the very mention of pregnancy throws her into panic. “It’s the end of the world,” she says flatly.

Time is running out; Anne is nearly three months along. Outside the halls of residence, it’s the time of rock’n’roll and the nouvelle vague. But Happening depicts a France still eerily coloured by Nazi occupation, where the trade in illegal abortion has become the new army in the shadows, arranged via code names and whispered meetings in the park. “Smile,” Anne is instructed when somebody ambles by, as if she has anything to feel especially happy about. It’s a serious, gripping and finally honourable film.

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