Le bonheur [DVD]
Director : Agnès Varda
Screenplay : Agnès Varda
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1964
Stars : Jean-Claude Drouot (François), Claire Drouot (Therese), Olivier Drouot (Pierrot), Sandrine Drouot (Gisou), Marie-France Boyer (Émilie Savignard)
Much has been made about how “shocking” Le bonheur (Happiness) was to audiences when it first screened in 1965. However, “shocking” is not the right word because that implies something sudden and aggressive--an assault on the eyes and the sensibility in the vein of Un chien andalou (1929) or A Clockwork Orange (1971). Le bonheur, on the other hand, works slowly and methodically under your skin until it gets into your gut, where it sticks long after the final reel has ended; it’s a film that’s impossible to forget. Although often overshadowed by some of her others works, Agnès Varda’s third film and her first in color is one of her most powerful because it is such a seamless whole, presenting a skewed moral universe that is all too frighteningly our own.
Le bonheur is the story of what happens to a picture-perfect family--handsome carpenter husband and father, pretty dressmaking wife and mother, and two golden-haired tots--when the husband becomes romantically involved with another woman. The idea of infidelity is certainly not a new subject to the cinema (particularly French film), but Varda’s take on it is so sharp in cutting straight to the bone of male-female relationships and the potential for cruelty in the happiest of guises that she makes it seem completely new. Even now, more than four decades after its initial release, it remains genuinely unsettling.
Varda has described the film as “a summer peach with a worm inside,” which is as apt a description as I can imagine. Varda, who is also a painter, designed the film to look like an Impressionist painting, with vivid hues and an emphasis on the beauty of nature, all of which are set to the strains of Mozart. Many scenes take place at picnics outdoors, and the opening shots frame the film’s pseudo-perfect family amid blooming sunflowers of almost impossibly vibrant yellow. Further emphasizing the importance of color, each sequence fades not to black, but to some intense hue, whether it be red or yellow or green or blue or sometimes blinding white. The effect is both painterly and slightly disconcerting, as the colors, beautiful as they are, start to take on a slightly ominous feel, as if the film itself is bleeding out.
As the title suggests, the film’s underlying theme is the nature of happiness. In an interview years later, Varda said, “In a world filled with prefabricated images of happiness, it is interesting to take apart the clichés,” which is precisely what she does by demonstrating how, like freedom, one person’s happiness often ends where another’s begins. At the center of the film is a pointedly barbed question: Can we accept something painful to make someone else happy? And what is the moral responsibility of the person inflicting pain on another in the pursuit of his own happiness?
François (Jean-Claude Drouot), the husband character, has a peculiar and self-centered notion of happiness that is based on accumulation. For him, happiness is adding more and more, which for him means keeping his wife Therese (Claire Drouot), whom he claims to love, but also having a mistress, Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), whom he meets in town. Each woman represents something different to him and fulfills him in a different way. Therese provides stability and motherhood and comfort, while Émilie provides a little danger and romance. However, what François fails to notice is that his accumulation of happiness means taking away happiness from others. Even though Émilie informs him early on that he is not “the first” (suggesting she has had other married lovers), she is clearly not satisfied being “the other woman.” Similarly, Therese lives in ignorance of Émilie’s existence until François finally tells her, which leads to a scene in which she appears to consent to his desire for another woman, but secretly harbors thoughts much darker.
Like all of Varda’s films, Le bonheur is powerful because she has a keen sense of how to mix traditional film aesthetics with more radical practices. For the most part, Le bonheur is a fairly conventional film both narratively and visually, so that, when Varda uses more experimental or unexpected techniques, they bring with them a genuine sense of power and urgency. For example, she begins a sequence with François and Émilie in bed together with a series of rapidly edited, slightly oblique still images that fragment their intertwined bodies, but then follows with a lengthy sequence shot in which they discuss their relationship; the effect is one of both fragmentation and wholeness, neatly conveying in purely visual terms the paradoxical nature of their affair. Similiarly, Varda’s decision to use Eisensteinian montage editing to expand time at a crucial moment is heartbreakingly powerful in the way it shows how a single, horrifying second can become an eternity.
The true brilliance of Le bonheur is the lack of precisely that which we would expect from a French New Wave auteur: a sense of authorial voice commenting on the action. From a feminist perspective, Le bonheur is nothing short of a horror film, conveying as it does the essentially replaceable nature of women in a patriarchal society: as long as the woman fills the role ascribed to her, it doesn’t matter who she is. Yet, there is no overriding sense of irony conveyed in the film, no heavy-handed means of informing the audience that we should be shocked and appalled. The fact that so many audiences were shocked by the film’s unexpectedly blissful/horrifying denouement is testament to the power of Varda’s approach. In allowing the audience to discover for itself just how strikingly brutal male domination can be--how subjugation can arrive with a smile and a bouquet--she ensured that her film that would have a lasting effect rather than being a momentary soapbox.
|Le bonheur Criterion Collection DVD|
|Le bonheur is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection’s “4 by Agnès Varda” box set. The box also includes La Pointe Courte (1954), Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), and Vagabond (1985).|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$79.96 (box set)|
|Release Date||January 22, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|According to an opening title card, Le bonheur has been restored twice, once in 1996 and again in 2005. In a 1998 interview included as a supplement on the disc, Varda discusses briefly how the film was saved from severely faded Eastman Color stock, and the image on this Criterion disc certainly reflects that work. Transferred in high definition from a 35mm internegative, the colors in Le bonheur are absolutely ravishing. It truly looks like an Impressionist painting come to life. The image is clear, if just slightly soft at times, with no signs of age or debris. The clear monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from an optical track negative and digitally restored, ensuring that Mozart’s stirring music sounds its best.|
|Standing in for a feature-length audio commentary is “Thoughts on Le bonheur,”a 15-minute discussion filmed by Varda in 2006 in which four scholars and intellectuals--freelance journalist Michèle Manceaux, producer and distributor Gérdard Vaugeois, journalist and critic Frédéric Bonnaud, and Fadela Amara, the president of an Arab women’s rights group--discuss the concept of happiness and its relation to the film. It’s fascinating listening to them discuss their first impressions of the film, especially since some of them saw it when it first came out in the 1960s and one person hadn’t seen it until the night before. In 2006, Varda and her daughter, Rosalie Varda-Demy, made a 6-minute short film titled “The Two Women of Le bonheur,” which reunited actors Marie-France Boyer and Claire Drouot (the latter of whom never appeared in another film) to discuss their experiences making Le bonheur. Varda also contributes two short films about the nature of happiness, as well as “Jean-Claude Drouot Returns” (2006), a 10-minute featurette in which the actor returns to Fontenay-aux-Roses, where the film was shot. Varda speaks about the film directly in a short, 3-minute video interview shot in 1998 as part of a German television retrospective of her work (which is why she has a young German boy translating everything she says). She has some brief, if intriguing insights into both her motivation for making the film (in addition to wanting to pick apart clichés, she loved being outside) and the film’s restoration from the faded Eastman Color negative. She also appears in a four-minute segment from the 1964 television program Démons et merveilles du cinema, which features footage of her shooting Le bonheur. Finally, the disc includes one of Varda’s early short films, the 25-minute Du Côté de la côte (1958), which explores the tourist destination of the Côte d'Azur, and a theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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