What is happiness to Varda in Le Bonheur? Family, nature, children, eating together, a job well done – be it joining a piece of wood or sewing a dress — good sex, different kinds of sex, dancing, pop culture, cinema, Mozart, a house thoughtfully arranged with flowers, plates and pots; all of which evoke a hand-made joy; post-impressionist picnic scenes like those of Renoir and Manet, the work of Chagall. But also the pop culture signified by the music of Sylvie Vartan or Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau films. . The journey into, out of, and perhaps back into happiness is that of François Chevalier´s (played by a very handsome and soft-spoken Jean-Claude Drouot) but Varda visually focusses on what was then a female and domestic sphere, on work then, and mostly still, done by women: sewing, crocheting, ironing, cooking, breastfeeding (see images below).
Happiness is a recurring concern for Varda. At the beginning of Jacquot de Nantes, she reads from Beaudelaire’s Le Balcon, ‘I know the art of evoking happy moments. Those vows, those scents, those unending kisses.´But then the poem turns, ´’Will they be born again from that unfathomable abyss like rejuvenated suns rise to the heavens from the depths of the sea? Oh vows, oh scents, oh unending kisses! The night was growing dense like a wall and my eyes glimpsed yours in the dark. And I drank your breath – Oh sweetness; oh, poison! And your feet fell asleep in my fraternal hand. The night was growing dense like a wall’. A cycle of passions, deception, development, and finally a move into compassion, fraternity, a different kind of love, a nostalgic elegy. This is different than what we see in Le bonheur but one does detects a patterning, a recurrence of elements.
For Varda´s protagonist, happiness requires a will, you have to want to be happy, and you have to seek it, know what you want and arrange your life and your home so that it might find a place there. Also, for François, happiness is not a zero-sum game, it can be added to infinitely. Such a view has a price, particularly when one is being honest about it and especially when one forgets one is a social being and one´s actions have an effect on others. Varda has commented on how she imagined the film as a vibrant, ripe, summer fruit with a worm in it.
Friends have insisted that those all too pleasing images of an all too perfect life look too much like an advertisement and must be read satirically or ironically. I think they can be, indeed this is such a great film that it lends itself to much thought and many different interpretations, but I don’t think they should particularly. The film is pre- Second-Wave Feminism, after Simone de Beauvoir´s The Second Sex (firs published in France in 1949) but before Varda´s own consciousness-raising, which she has spoken of as taking place in California through the late sixties and early 70s and which later found filmic expression in L’une chante, l’autre pas (1977). Moreover, Varda’s own commentary on the film in the much later Les plages d’Agnès speaks of sincerity:
But I also prefer to see the images of happiness as sincerely felt and meant: why shouldn´t those beautiful children, friends, family, picnics, a snuggling couple at ease with each other, etc depict and evoke happiness? They´re a delight to see.
The pleasures of culture
Few films conjure up such images and fewer still attribute them to the quotidian, the female, the working classes. And it´s not as if reading the film as sincere is equivalent to reading it as stupid. From the initial credit sequence onwards, the worm in this Eden is visible, alluded to, imaged, placed there to make you think without exactly telling you want to think about it. See below, for example of how the editing in the credit sequence alternates a perfect sunflower facing the sun (left) with the imperfect, parched and bowing down specimen we see on the right.
One of the things I found unusual in the film is how untroubled François is when he accidentally falls in love with someone other than his wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot). Emilie (Marie France-Boyer) is a career girl, works at the post office. She´s free and he´s not her first she tells him. He´s honest with her about still loving his wife and his children (played by Drouot´s real-life wife and children) but they fall in love.
A man being in love with two women at the same time is the subject of a million songs. A woman being in love with two men at the same time is a different proposition in a culture. But this is a woman´s take on the man being honest and not lying about his feelings and his actions yet also demonstrating that those actions are not without consequences. They might destroy lives. But, Varda seems to say, love trumps tragedy.
The film is formally brilliant, with a choice of imagery and cutting that makes it feels as the type of work that seems to flow directly from an individual consciousness into yours, a quality I at least tend to associate mostly with writing. Note how in this scene, where François and Emilie end up having coffee together the choices of imagery, focus and cutting both attribute desire to each character, clearly articulating the difference between thinking and saying, whilst conveying to us, the romantic inevitability of their coupling.
The first image is of ´Le Castel´one of the two cafés, Emilie has suggested to him. The second is of ´Le Chateau´´which she´s re-iterated is the better one. We see he´s made a choice, has followed her advice and is there when she arrives. ‘Is honey what your wife prepares for your lunch´, ‘You could say that, she´s a good cook and she´s kind’ Note how as the camera goes back and forth between them is a sign that says ´Bouche d´incendie’. There´s definitely a heating up, but will it be put out? No, as they discuss, the focus racks and fixes our eye on the sign behind them. She likes the country and she also likes dancing and cinema says Emilie as the film shows us a tray of beer and crème de menthe, starting a patterning of visually illustrating what the characters are feeling, which is not quite the same as what they are saying. She will see a couple kissing, as she wants to kiss him. He focusses on the heart pendant she´s wearing: this is not just a sexual thing for him. Though the scene will cut away to signs that say ‘Temptation’, ‘Mystery,’ These signs will re-appear in the scene, not always in focus. It´s signifcant too that when they talk about whether to go to the castle, and he prefers to be outside and she inside, we cutaway to an image of them in each place, already a couple, but one out of focus, one that´s yet to come into being, new next to the sharp focus of the old castle.
The editing in the sequence above, where François first goes into Émilie´s partment is equally noticeable, the shot/reverse shots as she opens the door like the quickening of a heart, the sense of excitement in the encounter replicated and evoked by editing. I also love the cuts to the layout of the place and its belonging, which is not point-of-view so could stand in for either his checking her out or her consciousness of the state of the place and in fact evokes both. The dialogue she´s given is still remembered by women who saw the film upon first release, is transformative and frames our understanding of everything that´s about to happen: ´’I love you also and don´t worry. I´m free, happy, and you´re not the first. Love me.’ That she declares herself so, that she makes the first move is important. She´s a modern woman. Thérèse is not. ´What happiness!´he says. But for whom?
Another brilliant scene in the film is the one of the dance, its importance signalled to us by the screening going dark for a few seconds beforehand. The music is gay. We first see some young ladies dancing. Then we cut to François and Thérèse, then the camera moves left racking the focus so that the characters get blurry as they go from one side of the dance hall to the other. That gliding of the camera back and forth, coming in and out of focus, will then show us Émilie dancing with an unknown man, Francois dancing with an unknown woman, François shifting to the right and dancing with another unknown woman, Thérèse on the left with an unknown man. Eventually, inevitably, François and Emilie dance together on the right, using the dance as cover, cheating right under the wife´s nose. In spite of the hight talk and high ideals, there´s the worm. Eventually François and Thérèse get reunited on the right side of the tree…but things have happened…not above board, as Thérèse is at this point ignorant of them whilst François and Thérèse are all too aware. This back and forth also has a lulling progressive effect. All these pretty colours, all this pretty dancing, unfolding over time into a kind of treachery underneath societal observances.
I´ve heard women speak quite negatively of the scene between the couple where he speaks his infidelity. It´s certainly unusual in cinema that relationships are seen to be negotiated thus. He tells her how happy that other woman makes him feel; how he still loves her; and how he´s willing to give up that happiness he experiences with the other woman if it makes her unhappy. It seems to me a sensible discussion, one not at all unusual in gay relationships, particularly the longer lasting ones. Yet emotions are not sensible and the head and the heart are often at odds. Is this the reason for the mystery that follows?
When Jean-Claude tells his wife about this new love a month into the affair she seems to initially accept it but five minutes later she´s dead. Did she commit suicide? Did she slip? Varda isn´t clear.
The cutting in the clip above also beautifully evokes inner feeling at that moment when François discovers the body of Thérése. Time broken up, disbelief, fractured realities. Then the cutaway to Thérèse, arms extended fro the water, clearly wanting to live, but the shot distance means we can´t see too clearly and the design, with large trees framing a far-way action making vision difficult. These things are hard to understand. Did she jump? Dis she slip? If she jumped, she clearly regretted her decision, as we see her trying to hold onto a branch…in vain. That flashback is attributed to no one and is clearly the film´s objective narrator, ie. the storyteller, ie. Varda. It´s also an insert that complicates everything, makes it more intereting; in every interpretation of the scene, François must share some blame, but the extent of it differs depending on the interpretation.
What Varda does underline is that a little while later Jean-Claude is just as happy, with his children, but now with Thérese as his wife. Some people find the images in the film kitsch. I don´t. Just because happy families have now become the preserve of advertising doesn´t mean that they´re not worth representing and re-imaging. And advertising doesn´t show us the work around the house in the ways that Varda does, the patient ironing, sewing, the joy in a bouquet of wild-flowers and a brightly painted room. And certainly Varda isn´t trying to show in order to sell.
Are wives so easily replaceable? It only takes François a few few months to get back to Émilie, that summer whose duration is suggested by the length of the shot showing that first family vacation without Thérèse. I think the film is more complex than that. It shows us his being in love with Thérèse and then him being in love with Emilie. He loves his children. He things he could love both. But his adventure destroys his first family, puts his children at risk, alters his life. Can love, aside from being sexual and romantic not also be practical? I think Varda dramatises a much more complex understanding of love than some interpretations would have it.
The Eastmancolour (above) which is so fragile and turns to red so quickly has been gloriously restored and affects one almost physically. It is a joy to behold the colours Varda has chosen, those glorious yellows, vivid blues, the reds and purples and greens. But it also makes us more clearly see the autumnal tones of the ending images, even as the vivid read of the children´s clothing recall a similar country walks with Thérèe at the beginning (see below)
Le Bonheur is a film that, worms and all, makes me happy, and part of the reason is because one rarely sees a working class family depicted thus, in a nice if modest home, with beautiful children, surrounded by family and loved ones, taking pleasure in the simple things, the countryside, flowers, a drive in a car, eating with friends, loving. The kitchen here is not for heart-sinking drama but for cooking, sharing, feeding, loving.
It´s a beautiful film, a great film; one to return to over and and over again, one sees different things each time, and each-reviewing enhances the pleasure in seeing it.
2 thoughts on “Le bonheur (Agnès Varda, France, 1965)”
Just skimmed this as I’m having a bit of a Varda viewing fest myself at the moment. I watched The Gleaners and I last night, and The Beaches of Agnes a few weeks ago (which is probably my favourite Varda film so far).
It´s gorgeous. Do watch it if you don´t know it. i re-watched the Gleaners this afternoon which I found so admirably empathetic and respectful. I also loved the interviews with Laplanche and Wertheimer and then the interviews with so many diverse types of gleaners.