LE BONHEUR (Happiness) 
                                          
a film by Agnès Varda
                                                  commentary by Tony McRae 

 

Agnès Varda is too often relegated to the second tier of the French New Wave directors.  When we speak of La Nouvelle Vague we think of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, etc.  If Varda is mentioned at all, she brings up the rear, along with husband Jacques Demy.  Perhaps the Criterion Collection's "4 by Agnès Varda" will change that.

A husband and wife, two perfect children, the perfect family.  For the first thirty minutes or so, all is tranquil:  picnics in the countryside, the children napping while husband and wife make satisfying love; François's carpentry and Thérèse's dressmaking bringing in enough money for all their needs; outdoor family meals where playful teasing and jollity abound.  

A perfect pastoral life, not unlike Jean Renoir's "Partie de campagne" (A Day in the Country) which, however, is not all joy and innocence.  There is a sadness to Renoir's film which, no doubt, influenced Varda's storyline.  She has said, "It will be a beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside."  This couple could be in a Garden of Eden, yet temptation is near.  

Émilie is a postal worker who resembles Thérèse to some extent, though she seems more modern, more outgoing.  She flirts with François, and though it seems harmless, we get a bit nervous.  After all, the married couple's idyllic life is too good to be true.  Or could it be that François looks upon his wife as too gentle, too loving, too perfect.  Perhaps he needs some spice in his life.  Mind you, Varda does not tell us this, nor does she imply it.  The strength of her film script -  and the naturalness of her actors - causes us to question François's motive.  Perhaps he hopes that Thérèse will become jealous, get a bit reckless in her lovemaking.  

Of course Marcel Proust has something to say about this: "When you come to live with a woman, you will soon cease to see anything of what made you love her; though it is true that the two sundered elements can be reunited by jealousy."  

Not unlike Proust's characters in "In Search of Lost Time," François doesn't seem to have a clue as to what his wife is thinking.  During one of their many picnics, Thérèse asks him why he seems so much happier lately.  He confesses that he has a mistress.  This does not reduce his love for her, he explains fervently, but rather it makes him love her more.  She seems skeptical at first, but then succumbs to his reasoning.  They make love while the children sleep.

(If you have not yet see this film, I suggest you not read further.)

When François wakes after their lovemaking, his wife is gone.  With his children in hand he searches the area, asking if anyone has seen the blond women in the blue dress.  There is a commotion by the river bank.  His wife is being pulled from the water.  The film does not tell us if she slipped and fell into the river or if she jumped in. 

Now here's the kicker:  after the funeral the remainder of the film, the final twenty minutes or so, appears to be a carbon copy of the opening scenes of husband and wife:  picnics in the country, lovemaking on the grass, playing with the children.  Only now, instead of François and Thérèse, we have François and Émilie.  The film's initial palette (the Thérèse scenes) is springs's ebullient greens, blues, yellows; at the end (Émilie scenes) autumn has arrived with, its browns, purples, grays.  

There is one other (cinematic) difference that underlines the differences in the two women.  In the François/Thérèse scenes, the camera work is fluid, the cuts subtle.  In the François/Émilie segment however, we have abrupt cuts, quick montages that intrude on one another, giving the feel that Émilie is working hard to catch up, to become the wife he wishes.  Where Thérèse seemed to be an appendage, a Stepford wife if you will, Émilie forces herself to please her new husband.

These differences are underlined by Mozart's music; first the bursting lushness of spring, later the minor keys of autumn's finale.  We're not in Eden anymore.  

At one point when François begins his seduction of Émilie, he compares his wife to "a hardy plant," whereas she, Émilie, is "an animal set free."   Yet at the film's end, Émilie is hardly free.  She appears frenetic.  We can certainly ask ourselves is this man really knows what love is. 

Many of the French New Wave male directors' protagonists are women:  Trufaut's Jules et Jim, La peau douce, The Bride Wore Black; Godard's A Woman Is A Woman, Two Or Three Things I Know About Her; Chabrol's Les bonnes femmes, Les biches; Renais's Hiroshima mon amour.  Varda's Le Bonheur takes a different tract with its male protagonist using and abusing the two women while wooing them with the sweetest of words.  He is aggressive in his affection.  Both Thérèse and Émilie seem helpless; Thérèse's response is suicide, Émilie's is a forced effort to fit in, to be loved.  Neither finds happiness. 

***

Buy the Criterion Collection's "4 by Agnès Varda" from DVD Planet.  Films included:  La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, and Vagabond.

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