Le Bonheur (1965)

Directed by Agnes Varda

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For a film to be titled “Happiness,” it better either be the happiest movie of all time or a joke.  This film leans towards the latter.  Part of that is because happiness, as it is in this movie, is seen entirely through the lens of the male character, Francois.  His happiness, which he uses like a shield, justifying all of his actions as long as he’s happy, kills his wife, Therese.  In the end, Francois maintains his happiness, and he presumably lives happily ever after.

It’s a pretty simple story, like any number of 1980’s Woody Allen films.  There’s a happy married couple, Francois and Therese, and despite their shared contentment, Francois meets another woman, Emilie, and strays from their marriage.  Emilie strongly resembles Therese, and like Francois’ wife, she seems entirely concerned with his well-being.

Francois has a crazy, distorted worldview, and both women seem to support it because they are essentially his subordinates.  The role of the woman is to please the man, and the men are free to do as they please.  At work, Francois’ coworkers can’t fathom how he stays faithful to one woman.  It’s in their nature, they seem to say, to stray, and it’s okay because it’s who they are.

So Francois carries on this affair but has the semi-awareness to lie about it.  When his wife finally asks him why he’s so damn happy, he tells her.  His worldview is so polluted by how own ego that he doesn’t even have the decency to understand why this might be something she wouldn’t want to hear.  Francois insists that there’s enough love and happiness to go around and the happiness he feels for one woman only gives him more for the other.  Therese seems to accept this, but it clearly bothers her.

When Francois awakes from a nap in the countryside, where he had lounged with her and the kids, he finds that she’s missing.  Soon he discovers her dead body, and he goes into brief mourning.

Soon enough, Francois tells Emilie he wants her to be his wife, to raise his children.  She accepts, and the family moves forward.

This is one of those films that sticks with you due to a combination of its simplicity and disgusting philosophy.  Of course, this isn’t Varda’s version of how things should be, just a commentary on how they are.  Francois, at first a handsome and kind family man, slowly becomes more and more distorted as we watch his unjustifiable actions while he maintains that suddenly sinister smile.  The longer he smiles and waxes poetic about what it means to live and to love, you can see him becoming more and more hollow.  He’s a madman.  He’s selfish, egotistical, and he’s just plain disgusting.

The film’s title is a cruel joke.  On one hand, none of this is happy if only because it’s so happy.  There is no emotional pain that contrasts the happiness and allows us to feel what the characters would theoretically feel.  Instead that ‘happiness’ is shoved in our face from the very beginning, and in doing so it alienates us, making sure we don not partake in what Francois feels.  He’s a sociopath, and both women in his life are either under his spell or simply put their own joy second to his.

People like Francois, Varda might as well be saying, run the world and will continue to do so.  On the surface they look harmless, family men who want only to support their family, but their souls are rotten, corrupted.

Throughout the film, Varda returns to the image of a flower.  In the opening sequence, there are two images of a sunflower, which we cut back and forth between.  In one, we watch the family move slowly towards the camera, always out of focus.

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In this image, the family remains indistinct enough as to be replaceable.  Because of Therese and Emilie’s similar appearances, that woman might as well be either of them.

In the other image, a sunflower stands alone, more vibrant.

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And in that contrast, the first flower seems now to be wilting, perhaps a little bit more as the family gets closer.

The cuts back and forth are jarring.  The shots get shorter, in some cases quickly flashing to the second flower so quickly that if you blink you might miss it.

In other moments, this editing style pushes us a little further from the emotion of a scene.  We’re never meant to really root for Francois, whether with Therese or Emilie.  In one moment he smiles at Theres, and the camera cuts quickly between their reactions, suddenly quickening the pace of the scene as if to make us anticipate something that never comes.  Francois’ affection, then, starts to feel more overtly predatory.  In another scene, as he drives innocently along an ordinary street, we cut to a series of shots of lions in a zoo.  He’s not going to the zoo, though he alludes to it.  The cuts, though, force us to think of Francois as one of the lions.  He’s always on the prowl, and now his harmless drives through the city feel like the movement of a lion, looking for someone to consume.

Le Bonheur is painfully cheery, just like Francois.  The music, the forcibly happy image of a family together in the meadow, comes across as someone shoving their joy in your face.  The effort to shove that joy in our faces undercuts that joy itself.  We don’t watch to see just how happy they are, we look for the cracks underneath, and soon enough they come out.

The film feels incredibly tragic, for obvious reasons.  It has a similar ending, in tone, to Chinatown.  St. Peter might as well tell Therese’s ghost, “Forget it Therese, it’s Chinatown,” but ‘Chinatown’ would be 1960s France or just the western culture at the time, or something like that.

Therese never had a chance, and Emilie doesn’t either.  Like Therese, she is eminently replaceable, and Francois will continue to coast by, pursuing whichever impulse makes him the happiest.  It’s also Francois’ inability to really feel pain or at least long-lasting pain.  He gets over Therese’s death rather quickly because Emilie is there waiting for him.  Part of the tragedy isn’t just in Therese’s fate, but also in the lack of Francois’ empathy or even basic understanding of why she (presumably) killed herself.

It’s an uncaring world, Varda seems to say, and it will continue to be this way as long as the heteronormative, culturally-controlling authority remains happy.  The rest will suffer, but it won’t matter because the history books are written by the winner, or something like that.

Le Bonheur is Varda’s direct feature follow up to 1962’s Cleo From 5 to 7.  Whereas this film is about a man who can’t feel anything but happiness, that film was all about a character’s deeply felt anguish.  Cleo’s worldview was shaded and shaped by her misery, inflicted on her by the surrounding culture.  A famed singer, Cleo’s entire self-image was manufactured and not necessarily by her.  She’s deeply sad, sure that she’s dying, and everyone around her complains about her self-pity while simultaneously enabling it.  In a sense they have built her up just to tear her down.

So Le Bonheur looks at the same issue from the other side.  The films are entirely oppositional in terms of tone, but they look at a similar issue.  If that film was heavily grave, this one is painfully light, and that gap in tone shows just how big the divide is within our culture.  Or at least that’s the impression I got.

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