Cléo from 5 to 7, arguably Agnès Varda’s most famous work, concludes with an almost ambivalent air about it, leaving viewers grasping for a resolution and answers that they’re ultimately going to have to work out for themselves. Just a couple of years later, one of Varda’s earliest moves into colour cinema, Le Bonheur (or Happiness), became the source of an even more confounding conclusion and tone. The great director celebrates her 88th birthday this week, and over 50 years on, this particular film’s wrestling with the notions of happiness and love still proves more stimulating than myriad works that deal with transgressive ideas concerning relationships in a more explicit, openly provocative fashion.
A major factor in why the film is so subtly unsettling — and not in the same sense of unsettling that a horror film can provoke — is in Varda’s complex presentation of the material in the film’s aesthetic qualities. As Amy Taubin notes in her essay on the film for the Criterion Collection, few films have inspired as wildly differing interpretations as Le Bonheur: “Is it a pastoral? A social satire? A slap-down of de Gaulle–style family values? A lyrical evocation of open marriage? Is the central character a good husband who knows how to enjoy life, a psychopath, a cad, or an unreal cardboard construction? Are the implications of the film’s title ironic or sincere? And, indeed, what is happiness?”
Audiences of 1965 would not have been used to such jaunty amorality for a story of adultery, and I don’t think contemporary viewers are all that prepared for it either, except when it comes to works with more obviously satirical digs at the nuclear family that use a cheery facade to eventually pull the proverbial rug out from under your feet for an “A-ha!” moment to tell you that everyone is terrible. This isn’t that sort of film.
Though a mordant sense of doom can be read in a subtle change of a Mozart music cue in the film’s rhyming bookends, there is little in the way of judgement in the film’s presentation and construction. All pastel colour hues even when the tale veers into a third act development of tragedy, and a tone of observational neutrality maintained for all of the scenes where François (Jean-Claude Drouot) and Émilie (Marie-France Boyer) proceed with their relationship that is posited not as an affair, but as “another love” that doesn’t contradict the different kind of love François has for the woman he knew first – his wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot). Even when François tells all to Thérèse, there is a calm, collected nature to how she responds to his reasoning that his other relationship in no way threatens their family, love or life together; that the three people can co-exist in the expanded happiness he has envisioned in what would many would read to be a noxious example of insular male thinking. Hell, within mere minutes, the married pair makes love once more amid the countryside as their two children safely sleep nearby.
It is only after François awakes from his post-coital slumber that consequences manifest, though these are still presented with the same somewhat clinical distance as the rest of the feature; the exact cause of Thérèse’s demise by drowning left as an ambiguous note, with an apparent flashback shot of the event coming across as a deliberate break from the “objective” narrative for François to rationalise it as accidental in his mind. There is a season’s worth of mourning and then the love whom he still has, Émilie, occupies the role that Thérèse has left, taking over the role of mother for the children. François suggested both loves could co-exist, but the film’s disconcerting concluding montage suggests one has sufficiently been replaced with the other, though it’s worth noting that some of Émilie’s body language and facial responses don’t seem entirely in support of the words François has pitched to her, despite the dialogue she presents back to him. Happiness for someone, then, is only achievable at the expense of someone else’s full experience?
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.