HAPPENING (2021)

(Theaters only/VOD soon) Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING (original French title: L’ÉVÉNEMENT), adapted fromAnnie Ernaux’s autobiography of the same name, may initially look like a slice-of-life character drama: It’s France in the early 60s and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a devoted student of literature, ready to buckle down and pass her final exams. Her parents are supportive, albeit overly industrious small bar owners and, after sunset, she enjoys a bit of the nightlife with her clique, while occasionally being glared at by her enemies.

In another film, that could be the opening of a quaint, comfortable ‘that one crazy summer’ movie. Not HAPPENING. Underneath its sun-washed gauzy palette of aqua blues and verdant greens is a tense, unwavering tale of a young woman under pressure as she realizes that she is pregnant in a country where abortion is outlawed and vehemently taboo. Anne is gravely aware of her ticking clock and she is determined to roll it back.

Anna gets to work and, as she goes from one failed plan to another, we see how her possibilities and her world shrinks. The already-tightly composed framing — shot in an 1.37 aspect ratio, closer to the boxed-in look of a standard definition TV show than a widescreen film — finds the camera inching closer in on Anna; rooms she inhabits feel smaller, more constrictive, she takes up more of the frame, her wide, defiant eyes inhabiting more and more of the screen. Her friends distance themselves, and those she talks to cower in fear of being jailed for simply hearing her broach the idea.

Anna’s solutions become more desperate, the world increasing hostile to her escape attempt, and the camera refuses to flinch or turn away, brusquely displaying her efforts through longer and longer takes. Her strength and vitality wane, exhaustion sets in due to the strain of the clock, the machinations of her body draining her, and she finds herself more and more emotional drained by her time spent lurking in the shadows.

Yet, during all of this, Anna unwaveringly brandishes her physical desires with confidence. That detail helps to set HAPPENNING’s scope to that of a steadfastly look at an unjust twist in a singular person’s life as opposed to one part of a grander coming-of-age tale or a film consisting of well-meaning scare tactics.

HAPPENING is an affecting work that resonates past the France of the 1960s, a headstrong tale of individual survival. Diwan, who is open about having had an abortion, had the following to say about why she adapted L’ÉVÉNEMENT:

“Lots of people told me in the industry, ‘Why do you want to make the movie now, because we’re in France and we already have [a law legalizing abortion]?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I really hope that you’re going to ask the same question to the next filmmaker that comes to you and says they’re going to make a movie about World War II. Because I guess the war is over.’ It was not easy to have them understand. I mean, look at how many women died on that battlefield and tell me it’s not a war. It’s a silent war.”

PROJECT A-KO (1986)

(Blu-Ray/Roku/tubi) As one might suspect, I was a gigantic nerd in my youth, enough of one that I was part of a group in high-school that would pool our lunch money to order LaserDiscs of late 80s anime and we’d then, err, find ways to ‘happen upon’ ways to duplicate copies for all involved. Let me tell you: bootlegging works were far more difficult, but far more enthralling, back then.

Apart from the soundtrack occasionally popping up in my playlists over the years, I’d mostly forgotten about PROJECT A-KO (despite still having a proper VHS copy of it)! At least, until this post popped up in my feeds.

The immediate flashback this post induced was: “oh, now that I think about it, this anime wasn’t just fan-service, it was super gay.” And, yup:

“The basic plot of PROJECT A-KO is: one dumbass lesbian fighting another dumbass lesbian to win the heart of the dumbest lesbian in the lands.”

I forgot how funny, how comic, PROJECT A-KO was, even though I know I didn’t get the bulk of the in-jokes and parodies and references back-in-the-day, and probably still don’t. However, it features a ton of hilariously universal kinetic physical comedic moments, while still often feeling grounded despite, you know, someone using numerous missiles as stepping stones during combat. Additionally, while the characters do a lot of punching, there’s not much in the way of punching down. Everyone here is flawed and messy and definitely either queer or over-protective found family, and you’re meant to identify with their flaws, rather than scorn them.

I rarely recommend any YouTube film-centric commentary video that runs for over an hour because I often don’t have the patience for watching them, but I highly recommend the one linked in the MeFi post above. I learned a lot, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Lastly, the OST is well-worth your time. Spaceship in the Dark is still a banger with all of its orchestral hits.

SORRY WE MISSED YOU (2019)

(Criterion/kanopy/VOD) Ken Loach’s SORRY WE MISSED YOU is a slow-motion car crash of a financial horror story about a family trying to get by while giving all of their spare time to low-wage gig jobs. The husband Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has just sold his wife Abbie’s (Debbie Honeywood) car to purchase a delivery van in order to delivery Amazon packages and the like around the U.K., and Abbie is now forced to bus around to her nursing jobs. Both of them are out of the house for twelve hours a day, which results in their teenage son’s troublemaking escalating and their young daughter being the one waking her mom and dad up when they fall asleep in front of the television. Bills mount up, fees spiral out of control, and it looks like there’s no way out.

While their debt and stress casts a pall over the film, Paul Laverty’s (who penned Loach’s prior film I, DANIEL BLAKE) script inserts enough kind and sweet moments, such as one afternoon when Ricky takes his daughter along delivering packages, and there’s a poignant scene between Abbie and one of her ‘clients’ where they share family photos. The client pointedly shows off pictures of her in her old union job.

That one scene, where Abbie’s client talks about her old union job as ‘the good times’, is the only explicit commentary that Laverty and Loach insert, but ultimately the entire film is a plea for a return to the age of unionization and workers’ rights. They make sure to hammer home the simple fact that the gig economy is a return to pre-union times: a return to the company store, a return to being nickeled-and-dimed, a return to job inequality, a return to inexistent worker protection.

Near the end of the film, the daughter yells “I just want to go back to the way things were before!” and, while she’s too young to realize that the ‘before’ wasn’t necessary significantly better, she realizes it’s far better than the stressed-out hell everyone is dealing with now. She deserves better. We as a society deserve better than this.

THE FAREWELL (2019)

(kanopy/Prime/VOD)? With the recent handwringing about theaters potentially going out of business due to the pandemic, a lot of folks focus on the communal experience of shared spectacle and of whiplash moments, but few discuss how the darkness of theaters also allow us to nakedly indulge in other emotions with strangers.

Case in point: THE FAREWELL. (Warning, some small spoilers ahead, but really, they aren’t.) I watched it solo on a balmy Friday night, late in July 2019. There was a fairly sizable crowd and, while we laughed and tensed up at every well-crafted moment, it was the end — and I don’t mean the epilogue — that brought the entire room to tears. As the taxi drove away, everyone was audibly sobbing, men and women, myself included. (Although, I admit, I’m a soft touch when it comes to tears.)

Obviously, we were saddened for Billi, for her grandma, for the front that the family felt forced to put up, their regret at not being able to be truthful and have proper closure. However, as the camera revealed the rest of the family inhabiting the cab, it felt like we were also crying for those around us who had lost family, who knew what it was like to experience unreconciled grief. The theater became a shared funereal experience, one that simply wouldn’t have happened in a brightly lit room with a giant LCD screen.

While the film’s epilogue staunched the tears a bit, there remained a somber feeling in the air as we numbly walked towards the exit, barely looking at one another, perhaps a bit embarrassed, perhaps a bit raw. It’s these sort of experiences I’ve missed the most during the pandemic, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

BLUE (1993)

(kanopy) This is the last of my dramatic film recommendations for a while — October will be 100% horror (mostly film, some TV) and November will be all about TV, and I expect I’ll be too exhausted to write anything for December, so I’m closing September out with my favorite movie ever: BLUE, the final film in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s THREE COLORS trilogy. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to have seen RED or WHITE to get it, but you might want to circle back.)

Please excuse my indulgence, but it’s the film that crystalized to my teen mind what, emotionally, a film could imbue. A story of love and loss, of legacy and exploitation and regret, exquisitely and silently and loudly told. A woman coping with the sudden death of her husband and daughter and the lies she dealt with when they were alive, and those she tries to convince herself of while she’s trying to live. Its economy is devastating; a perfect film for the walking wounded.

That said, Zbigniew Preisner’s score does -a lot- of heavy lifting. (I still hold dear a very nicotine-stained CD of the soundtrack.) So many films cheap out on trying to showcase ‘iconic works created by their protagonists’, but SONG FOR THE UNIFICATION OF EUROPE — Julie’s version, of course because, well, spoilers — is a goddamn masterpiece:

and brings everything full-circle in a moving end-scene (NSFW):

So, yes, there you go. I’m not one for best of lists, but BLUE is undeniably my favorite film ever, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I hope these words move you to watch it, if you haven’t already. Onto October, and some scary fun!