LE BONHEUR (Happiness)
a film by Agnès Varda
commentary by Tony McRae
Varda is too often relegated to the second tier of the French New Wave
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
you have not yet see this film, I suggest you not read further.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.