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FilmWatch Weekly: Tough topics in ‘Happening’ and ‘On the Count of Three,’ plus summer film classes and more

The timely topics of abortion and suicide get searing attention onscreen. Plus: A demented take on Shakespeare and a King Crab fable.

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Anamaria Vartolomei in “Happening.”

I’m not generally a fan of trigger warnings, but there are two films opening this week, each tackling an extremely difficult topic, that some folks may want to steer clear of. Not because they tackle the issues of, respectively, abortion and suicide, with insensitivity, but because they do so head-on and with literally stunning potency.

The French drama Happening was scheduled for American release this month well before the Supreme Court draft opinion that would overrule Roe v. Wade was leaked. Suddenly made even more timely, it would, even without that boost, be one of the most powerful films ever to center on abortion. (That short list would also include the 2007 Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and the 2013 documentary After Tiller.)

Happening is based on a memoir, published in 2000, by Annie Erlaux, that recounts her experience with an unplanned pregnancy as a 23-year-old in 1963, when the procedure was strictly banned in France. Annie is played by the Romanian-born Anamaria Vartolomei in what is a transfixing performance.

A gifted and determined literature student from a working-class family, Annie initially grows concerned when her period is three weeks late, and as the film progresses, chapter headings indicate the inexorable passage of time: four weeks, then five, as she confronts the reality of her situation and her unwavering efforts to terminate her pregnancy. She knows in her bones that carrying the fetus to term would mean a certain end to her education and her dreams of transcending her background.  

Doctors are no help—even those sympathetic to her plight are terrified of the legal consequences of even recommending an abortion. Even Annie’s best friends are horrified and unwilling to risk lending aid. As she pursues more and more desperate measures, director Audrey Diwan graphically depicts the actions Annie takes and the potentially dangerous consequences of them. (It’s these scenes that might make the film too tough to take for those who’ve had direct experiences of similar situations.)

Diwan, making only her second feature, has a remarkably assured style, keeping a tight, subjective focus on Vartolomei, who’s in nearly every shot of the film. It’s a huge burden for the actor, who gamely and compelling conveys Annie’s single-mindedness and stoicism in the face of both emotional and physical agony.

Something I didn’t realize until reading the film’s press notes is that the word “abortion” is never uttered in Happening, a testament to the strength of its taboo nature. Of course, the intense concern that abortion will soon be driven underground once again for a large part of the United States makes this movie all the more harrowing and, likely, prescient. Anyone who has trouble imagining what a world where abortion is illegal would feel like needs to see it. (Opens Friday, May 13, at Cinema 21)

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From left: Jerrod Carmichael stars as Val, Christopher Abbott as Kevin, and J.B. Smoove as Lyndell in “On the Count of Three.” Photo: Albert Camicioli © 2022 Annapurna Releasing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

THE ACTOR AND COMEDIAN Jerrod Carmichael recently received raves for his HBO special Rothaniel, but his directorial debut, On the Count of Three, is only now receiving a theatrical release after premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. That delay can be chalked up, at least in part, to the inevitable marketing dilemma that a (very dark) comedy about suicide presents.

The movie’s about two lifelong friends: Kevin (Christopher Abbott), who’s hospitalized following a recent suicide attempt and has been struggling with mental illness since childhood, and Val (Carmichael), his lifelong friend, who’s stuck in a dead-end job at a home and garden store and is having relationship issues.

Val shows up at the hospital, helps Kevin escape, and then reveals he’s decided they should both kill themselves. At the last moment, however, Kevin convinces Val that they should give themselves one last day. Both have unfinished business. Kevin’s is with the childhood therapist (Henry Winkler) he holds responsible for messing up his life, and a childhood bully; Val’s is with both his abusive father (J.B. Smoove) and his girlfriend (Tiffany Hadish).

There’s plenty of opportunity for morbid humor as our heroes embark on what they expect will be the last day of their lives. The script, by Ari Katcher (who worked with Carmichael on his self-titled three-season sitcom) and Ryan Welch (who co-created the Apple TV+ series Ramy alongside Katcher), tries to balance these moments with others showing the true friendship between this depressed duo. These efforts aren’t always successful, but On the Count of Three nonetheless builds to a surprisingly powerful final act.

Our society has come a long way in its attitude toward depictions of self-harm since Burt Reynolds tried to do himself in in The End. And it can be a fine line between sympathizing with suicidal ideation and endorsing it. The marketing for On the Count of Three includes appropriate warnings about the film’s content and the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (which is 1-800-273-TALK), although the film itself did not—at least on the press screening link I viewed. As with Happening, I’d recommend that folks who have personal issues surrounding mental illness or self-harm think hard before seeing On the Count of Three. But, then again, what do I know? It could just as easily be a thoroughly cathartic experience. (Opens Friday, May 13, at Cinema 21)

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Western States Arts Federation

A QUICK NOTE about the welcome sign of in-person (or hybrid) film education and networking opportunities that are starting to pop up as the warmer, hopefully less Covid-y months are upon us. This weekend, for instance, the Oregon Media Lab, in conjunction with NW Documentary, is hosting its annual Northwest Doc Camp, which includes in-person screenings and get-togethers from Wednesday, May 11, to Friday, May 13, as well as an online-only component on Friday. In addition to networking and information-sharing, the camp includes presentations from the noted documentarians behind acclaimed projects such as RBG and A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff as well as industry veterans and experts.

In addition, the organization NW Film Camp is holding events in Portland this weekend for students registered in their summer classes, which are available in various locations in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Last but not least, PAM CUT has begun accepting reservations for its Summer Camps for kids and adults (although the only adult camp currently listed is one teaching DJ skills). Although remote film watching (i.e. streaming) works pretty well, filmmaking can’t be done over Zoom, so these opportunities to gather and learn in the flesh will surely be welcome.

Also this week:

The Tale of King Crab: The feature debut of directors Matteo Zoppis and Alessio Rigo de Righi is an earthy Italian historical fable that feels like a lost film from Paolo & Vittorio Taviani or Lina Wertmuller. Structured as a tale told by present-day old-timers, it follows the boorish, wild-haired Luciano (Gabriele Silli), who butts heads with the elites of his rustic, 18th-century village. After his irreverence goes too far, he ends up exiled to Tierra Del Fuego, where he spends the second half of the movie in a quixotic search for a hoard of gold lost in a shipwreck. Silli’s performance is magnetic, and both the cinematography and the use of memorable nonprofessional performers contribute to a grounded, almost documentary-style realism. (Opens Friday, May 13, at Living Room Theaters)

Shakespeare’s Shitstorm: From the demented mind of Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Films, the makers of cult classic The Toxic Avenger, comes another low-budget, slapstick gross-out. And if you think this one’s any classier just because it’s based on The Tempest, you don’t know Kaufman. Still going strong in his 70s, the maestro will be in attendance for this Saturday night screening of his take on Prospero, Caliban, Ariel, and the rest—with plenty of fake poop and vomit on hand. (Saturday, May 14, at the Hollywood Theatre)

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.
Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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