Images from the great ‘Delphine Seyrig Defiant Muses ‘exhibition. The greatness of the exhibition is in conveying a range of feminist practices, collective and social, international, ranging from issues on abortion to sex work to trans performances of classic American plays, to the liberation of video as form, to the value even of unproduced feminist film projects (Calamity Jane). And a range of relationships between women (Duras, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnès Varda, Simone de Beauvoir and so many more whose names don´t mean as much to me. I was delighted to see Jean Genet speaking up for Angela Davis and the Black Panthers as part of the work produced by Seyrig and the feminist collectives she was a part of.
Here is the program:
Plus some more images and text I thought some of you might find interesting:
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.
Andrew Grimes Griffin has challenged me to a new game: 10 Books in 10 Days, with an explanation of how the book affected your life, thought, or work. I’ll skip the work bit as that would be just too much work. Do join in if you’d like: it would be lovely to see the web full of discussions of books.
Today my choice is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life, the second volume of her memoirs which began with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: from my late teens to well into my forties I was, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but I was a constant reader of de Beauvoir’s work and I’ve read pretty much all of it, from The Second Sex to The Mandarins, to the posthumous journals, letters to Sartre etc. What I kept returning to was her memoirs: They seem to offer a gay Hispanic allophone a model for inventing a life in many dimensions: intellectual – she was always reading and seeing and commenting avidly on it all; romantically (it was all discussed; what is love? what are the parameters of an open relationship, why not marry? – it was all thought through and shaped) morally (and this in reference not only to friendships and relationships but a kind of ethics for living), politically (how to behave under occupation), her relationship with her work (she put in the hours, beavered away like a good ‘Castor’) her participation in the intellectual and artistic life of the period (or not), her quest to be free, to act responsibly, to do good. What I found enthralling and inspiring was this conscious shaping of a life and a world, one which felt out of control and alien to me, but which she offered a model of willing, differently shaping, changing. Of all the diaries, The Prime of Life, which covers her early relationship with Sartre, all of the thirties, and ends with the Liberation, was the one that I returned to over and over again for many years, largely because I was in my twenties and thirties as well when I first read and re-read it. Aside from the pleasures it gave of its own, it also introduced me to French intellectual life between the wars and after, which has remained a lifelong interest.
A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:
1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.
Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.
James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.
Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.
Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierretteà l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.
Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.
Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.
Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.
Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.
David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.
There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection,The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others; I even read Jean Plaidy.
In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels. Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.
There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,