May 6, 2022 9:49 AM EDT

In Audrey Diwan’s tense and quietly radical film Happening, Anne, a bright young student in early 1960s France, discovers she’s pregnant. The law, as the doctor who breaks the news tells her, “is unsparing.” Anyone who helps her terminate the pregnancy will land in jail, as will she. Her closest friends abandon her when she confesses her plight; the father of the unborn child absolves himself of responsibility. A doctor who feigns sympathy pretends to help her, though in reality he’s trying to seal her fate. And when she begs a male teacher to help her catch up on the lectures she’s missed, he asks bluntly what has caused her absence. “The illness that strikes only women,” she says, “and turns them into housewives.”

Happening—which won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at last year’s Venice Film Festival—is a difficult film to watch. That’s in part because of an agonizing, if discreetly shot, scene in which the heroine—played with raw, bruised resolution by Anamaria Vartolomei—attempts a DIY abortion with a knitting needle. (When I saw the film in Venice, several audience members left the theater during this scene, though among those filing out, I counted not a single woman.)

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

But Diwan’s film is less harrowing for its depictions of physical suffering than for its forthright exploration of Anne’s emotional desolation. She’s a country girl whose dream is to become a professor. But women who have sex before marriage are written off as “fast”—their sexual desire is treated as a flaw, a cause for shame.

Happening is adapted from the 2000 book by the French writer Annie Ernaux, detailing the experience of her own abortion in 1963. It’s an unyielding picture in some ways; you might long for a sliver of optimism tucked amid its layers of grim truth. But then, all its hope lies in Anne’s face, as uncompromising as an early crocus. This is the face of a woman who deserves much more respect—for her body, for her very life—than her society affords her. And if 1960s France seems like a faraway time and place, Happening comes entwined with a warning: the country it’s showing us is likely to be the United States of Tomorrow.

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