The Cold Light of Day: On Agnès Varda’s ‘Le Bonheur’

Le Bonheur Movie Essay - 1965 Agnès Varda Film

Monsieur Chevalier — François, to friends — is a frank gentleman. When he first appears in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur, he shares an idyllic life with his wife, Thérèse and two children so heedful they fall asleep on command when the adults want to make love. The Chevaliers are played by TV star-of-the-moment Jean-Claude Drouot and his real-life spouse and sprogs — a fact the viewer need not know coming in, but which hints to the projective and estranging tactics lodged at the film’s core. That there is a core to be found at all is something Varda herself pointed to when comparing Le Bonheur to “a summer fruit with […] perfect colours, inside of which is a worm.”

It is best to consider Varda’s words as more descriptive than damning. Nothing in Le Bonheur produces lasting unhappiness, and to approach it in a spirit of contemplation, rather than one of judgment, may allow the movie its most favorable terms of engagement. Le Bonheur is not about the story, nor is it even about how the story is told. It is, centrally, about how a story is seen through the joint perspectives of an almost preternaturally detached director and a viewer who is bound to enter it with preconceptions. The narrative’s complete subordination to the cinematic is a running commentary on the capabilities of film as form.

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François is a happy carpenter, a condition that is made to pivot on his family both nuclear and extended, since his future is secure by his partaking in the latter’s business. While on a trip out of town, he finds himself drawn to Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), a pretty, blonde postal worker who rather resembles his wife. Their courtship is as fast as it’s uncomplicated: she’s had flings before and he has Thérèse and the kids to go back to. At no point does François conceal that he is married, and what little hesitancy Émilie displays upon receiving this intelligence seems more a product of politeness than concern. For a month or so, François enjoys both women utterly, and they in turn appear to function less as individuals the more they operate as multipliers of his happiness. When Thérèse confronts her husband’s overjoy while on a family outing, he again does not dissemble but explains he has a mistress, something that Thérèse seems to accept without too much ado. The pair make love in the open and the family falls asleep, but when the children rouse their father, it’s to soon discover that Thérèse has drowned. Was it an accident? A suicide? It doesn’t matter. Before any decisions can be taken by the extended Chevaliers as to the fate of the orphans, François has promoted Émilie into a readymade wife and mother no less diligent or loving than her predecessor. Life goes on, and no one’s the wiser for it. Or perhaps, they are just that.

It would be specious to take Le Bonheur to task for its plot or characters: the first being negligible, the second, hyperrealized and — maybe on account of it — insipid. It is the closest thing, however, to a procedural without a conflict, and its wealth of ambiguities — punctuated by Varda’s decisive directorial gesturing — are there to drive home that this good-looking film is a surface polished to reflect the viewer (and the act of reflection itself), far more than to shed light (or cast shadows) on the inner lives of characters or the shortcircuitry of situations. Nor is Varda any bit less of an opportunist than François himself: the striking colors that Le bonheur is most famous for are owed to a technical glitch — the fading of a negative original — that was creatively repurposed into something new, and as of then, unseen.

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Despite appearances, though, Le Bonheur is undeniably a feature of its time. It is impossible not to compare its chromatic bravura to that of Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) — directed by Varda’s own husband, Jacques Demy — and difficult not to contrast its use of themes, motifs and directorial strategies with those that were so profitably used by Jean-Luc Godard at the cusp of the French New Wave. The erotic centerpiece in Le Bonheur, where Varda showcases Boyer’s pale nakedness through cut-up and montage techniques, would have given Lacan no less of a field day than the opening scene of Godard’s Une femme mariée, in which Macha Méril’s body is first presented as a composite of body parts. Likewise, Godard’s envisioning of Paris as a consumerist haven for his Bovaryesque Charlotte is not so distant from the ostensive use of advertising found in the exuberant exurbs of Le Bonheur, where signage points to states of affairs (“AZUR” on a blue wall) or of mind (“J’AIME”). A café can be a château, and the character’s desires and their intimations — “TENTATION,” “MYSTÈRE” — are persistently projected onto the surrounding surfaces until they constitute a second nature — and with it, a second landscape that exposes the artificious underpinnings of the “natural” life and “free” love.

Varda’s ability to superimpose the different, but neither opposite nor separate, planes of the natural and the real in a single, sustained composition results in Le Bonheur’s uncanny even-handedness. Happiness — audibly bracketed between Mozart’s “Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581” and his “Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K.546,” a later transcription of that same piece, to strings, from woods — can be nothing but a basso continuo for a protagonist whose change in wife is not so much a thing of substance as a sort of accident. And what, in lesser hands, could have become an exercise in slice-of-life cinema or a tawdry morality play is heightened by the means of exposition the director uses for effect much like a poet does with spacing and punctuation. The result is a filmmaker’s film, where the interest and the implications of the piece are almost strictly visual and the plot is little more than a dissolvent chosen both by the director — and for her protagonist. On a superficial level — and it is a level that’s important to a superficial movie — Le Bonheur parades a classic nature versus nurture tension, but the film itself is best appreciated as an illustration of said tension’s dissolution, in which sense it fleshes out a new form of suspense.

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As experienced by François, the action takes place in a state-of-nature, and it is easy to surmise how he may have developed his outlook, given the context he inhabits. As clichéd as he may be in his comparisons of women to animals, meadows and apple trees, his behavior is abetted by the facile voluptuosity of his surroundings, in which breastfeeding is a postprandial and sex is practiced outdoors in gardens more English than French. It may not be a coincidence that the improvised crib that Thèrese puts the children in resembles the frontispiece to the second edition of the Abbé Laugier’s Essaie sur l’architecture — the allegory of the primitive hut. Le Bonheur is an essay on the primal structures (and the founding myths) of love and family, where men continue to build sheds and strive to set up Eden in their backyards even as urbanization looms, all too apparently for viewers but, it seems, almost invisibly to them. Among the closing shots of Émilie is one of her, kneeling, with twigs and branches in her hands that could be made into a bonfire or fashioned into a new impromptu crib for children that, though not her own, are now as good as hers because they are as his as she herself is. And though she may not be these children’s real mother, she would seem to be a natural at the job.

These are all things the eye uncovers, situationally, but doesn’t linger on. (There is no time.) The eye connects with things before the mind does: similar furniture, similar cardigans, similar blondes. Before they know it, viewers may start to develop a parallel index for colors and shapes that ultimately overtakes whatever moral qualms or narrative concerns they may have. Relationships — between people, amongst things — are as necessary as they’re circumstantial, and coincidence works as a reinforcement, much in the same way as touching an object makes one the more prone to acquire it. So: do you buy this family business thing? And would it help your decision to know that no families were injured in the making of this film?

Mónica Belevan (@LapsusLima) is a writer and designer who has frequently flirted with film. Collaborating with Vague Visages will be her next step in committing to it.