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'Happening' takes place in France in the 1960s, but speaks to this particular moment

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In a new French film, a 1960s college student discovers that she must cope with a life-changing event almost entirely on her own. Critic Bob Mondello says that the film "Happening" is a period piece that speaks to this particular moment.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The French countryside, 1963 - Anne and her gal pals are at a university party, Anne being the only one who talks to the boys - to a fireman, actually, who has crashed the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

ANAMARIA VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

JULIEN FRISON: (As Maxime, speaking French).

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: He's handsome enough, but Anne's a little preoccupied. And the next day, when she goes to the doctor, a quick pelvic exam reveals why. You've had sexual relations, the doctor asks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

FABRIZIO RONGIONE: (As Dr. Ravinsky, speaking French).

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: No, never, she says - a boyfriend?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

RONGIONE: (As Dr. Ravinsky, speaking French).

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: But now he knows better. Removing his gloves, he's matter-of-fact. You're pregnant, he tells her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

RONGIONE: (As Dr. Ravinsky, speaking French).

MONDELLO: She sits up in alarm. Do something, she whispers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: And now, it's his turn for alarm. You can't ask me that, nor anybody else, he tells her. The law is unsparing. Anyone who helps you can end up in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

RONGIONE: (As Dr. Ravinsky, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Anne, played by newcomer Anamaria Vartolomei, steels herself. Her university career is just beginning. Having a child would derail it. But who can she turn to? Not her girlfriends, who she correctly guesses would shame her if they knew. Other doctors? Dangerous. Her parents? Not after their sacrifices so she could study. The one guy at school she's close to? That's a real mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

KACEY MOTTET KLEIN: (As Jean, speaking French).

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: As the weeks tick by, Director Audrey Diwan, working from an autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, shows Anne growing ever more desperate - in the library afraid to be seen even reading about pregnancy, distracted by worry to the point that she's likely to be kicked out of school. If she could find an abortion provider, she'd have to sell her most precious belongings - her books - to pay for an agonizing procedure. And even then, her travails wouldn't be over, either physical or psychological. As she tells a doctor who is sympathetic but still can't help her, she wants someday to have children...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...But not instead of a life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

VARTOLOMEI: (As Anne Duchesne, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Anne's is a wrenching journey that feels at first as if it's going to play like a historical object lesson. But Vartolomei brings such urgency to the heroine that nothing about what happens in "Happening" feels past tense. Given current events, it feels all too timely. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.