Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 21 July 2010
Source Criterion DVD
Categories Viva Varda: The Films of Agnès Varda
What is happiness (“le bonheur”)? For François, it’s the ordinary, everyday life he leads with his wife Thérèse and their two young children. But that happiness soon expands to encompass a love for another woman, Émilie, with tragic results for his wife. In recent years, Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur has frequently been the subject of feminist-inflected readings, and it’s true that the film’s focus on a male protagonist and his unthinking commitment to the happiness brought to him by his parallel loves can be easily read as a critique of gender relations and patriarchal power. Yet Varda’s viewpoint within the film is never that clear-cut. It’s too easy, from the standpoint of our current appreciation of Varda as France’s pre-eminent postwar feminist filmmaker, to ascribe intentions to the Varda of 1964 that are simply not there. In fact, Varda’s engagement with the feminist movement came later in the decade, and it’s her work of the seventies, above all the 1975 documentary short Réponse de femmes and the 1976 feature film One Sings, The Other Doesn’t that is most marked by that involvement. Le Bonheur dates from an earlier stage in Varda’s development and her interests and motivations are different.
Of course, the maker of Cléo From 5 To 7, that pre-eminent rejoinder to the misogyny-tinged Nouvelle Vague, is going to be sensitive to the perspective of her female characters. There’s one moment in Le Bonheur when this explicitly comes to the fore. Thérèse observes a group of her male relatives building a playhouse in the garden, an activity from which she is bluntly excluded with a “no girls allowed” comment. All at once, the idyllic image of François and Thérèse’s domestic life that the film has so far proposed is undermined: previously, the home had been a site where the parallel worlds of male and female artisanship (François’ carpentry, Thérèse’s dressmaking) are integrated, symbolised by the mutually-supportive ritual of going-to-bed chores we see the couple performing together. Tellingly, this playhouse scene is followed by the first criticism we hear of Thérèse, as François reproaches her for carrying their young son Pierrot too much and, implicitly, for not allowing him to develop as a boy.
But François is not being set up as the sole focus of the film’s critique. For one thing, Varda is engaging in a far more generalized examination of what “happiness” might mean. In 1965, Varda spoke of a dual inspiration for the film: Impressionist painting and amateur family snapshots. In Impressionism there was, for Varda, “a vibration of color that seems to me to correspond to a certain idea of happiness,” and in the film she consciously evokes the movement’s colors and settings. (This is no doubt the primary reason she includes, as the one glimpse we have of a TV broadcast, an extract from Jean Renoir the younger’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.)
In this same statement Varda spoke at length of the effect family snapshots had on her:
I wanted to share the emotions I feel when looking at amateur photos, the delicate impressions made by family photos. You see people, a group of them, sitting around a table, under a tree; they hold up their glasses and smile, looking into the camera lens. When you see the photo, you say to yourself: that’s happiness. It’s just an impression. When you look more closely, you’re suddenly troubled. All these people, it’s impossible – there are fifteen people in this photo, old people, women, children – it’s impossible that they were all happy at the same time… Or else, what is happiness, since they all look so happy? The appearance of happiness is also happiness.1
This is exactly the effect Varda gets from the one family snapshot that she includes in the film itself, holding on it at some length. Knowing as we do that it comes after Thérèse’s funeral, we read this superficial image of happiness differently, detecting beneath the surface impression of a smiling family a poignant sense of absence and loss.
At the start of Le Bonheur Varda offers a series of calm, untroubled images of happiness, immeasurably aided by the strains of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. What do we see? A pastoral Eden in which the family of François, Thérèse, and their two young children (whose natural rapport obviously derives from the fact they are played by an actual pair of siblings) picnic in an idyllic, summer countryside, in which flowers, leaves, bushes and trees are foregrounded by the camera as much as the human figures. The calm contentment of these scenes carries over into what we are shown of the couple’s everyday life, at home, in contact with family and friends, and at their separate places of work.
There’s no sense of disruption when François starts up an affair with post office clerk Émilie, physically not so dissimilar from his wife (a significant pointer to the film’s conclusion). Unusually for a story of an adulterous triangle, the film has no taste for conflict or melodrama, and François suffers from no pangs of guilt: for him loving and being loved by two women now simply increases his happiness — “happiness works by addition.” There’s an unquestioning passivity here, a rather sardonic view on Varda’s part as to what makes happiness. All these characters, the women included, create happiness out of what life brings to them, but there are no drives, ambitions or desires to them that would lead them to create something more of their life or their world.
It’s François’ calm contentment with the happiness of this life of his that brings him, on another of the family’s countryside picnics, to tell Thérèse of Émilie, to have him join her in his expanded happiness, one, he argues, that in no way threatens their family, their life together, or their love for one another. Is the tragedy that then ensues a rebuke of François, a critique of smug male insularity? Varda never makes it so clear-cut. For one thing, we’re never shown how Thérèse comes to be drowned, whether it’s deliberate or accidental. There’s a brief flashback shot of Thérèse reaching up from to water to grab an overhanging branch as if to save herself, but the source of that shot is left ambiguous — is it François’ unconscious attempt to deny his own responsibility, or is it the film’s own “objective” narrative?
Or is Varda proposing that there’s a failure on Thérèse’s part to respond to a new, unconventional way of living? Le Bonheur was a product of the sixties, a decade intent on overturning convention and pursuing social, political, artistic, and sexual experimentation. And although Varda has always been very reticent about the details of her personal life (it’s only in her most recent film, The Beaches of Agnès, that she actually names AIDS as the cause of her husband Jacques Demy’s death), her own family was far from conventional. We may be getting a hint here of Varda’s own accommodations to her husband’s bisexuality.
In any case, Thérèse’s death is as not as central to the effect of Le Bonheur as the ending that Demy once described as “monstrous.”2 Here, the rhythms of François’ family’s life return to the “normality” of the first part of the film as Thérèse is simply replaced, in every aspect, by Émilie. This further reinforces the hints Varda has given in two earlier scenes of the utter interchangeability of partners: in François and Émilie’s first date at a pavement café where Varda’s camera takes note of other women around; and a formally structured back-and-forth panning shot of an outdoor dance with François, Thérèse, and Émilie all changing partners. There’s a cool, even cruel Olympian distance to Varda’s perspective on her characters, and it may be that the director’s interest is as much with the formal aspects of the film, the constant experimentation and play with colour, blocking, changing focus within the frame, and fast editing. At any rate, the mood at the end of the film is very different from that of the beginning. It’s the same family, reconstituted and yet unchanged, that returns to the countryside. But now it’s autumn, and the Mozart soundtrack has changed to the sombre, forbidding tones of the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor. As the family wanders off, hand-in-hand, ever smaller, into the forest, there seems something frankly terrifying about this “happiness.”
Cléo from 5 to 71962
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t1977
Jacquot de Nantes1991
One Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinéma1995
The Gleaners and I2000
The Beaches of Agnès2008