Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on February 8, 2017
Do you have a film you love even though you can’t point to a specific reason why? A title that just seems to envelop you from the opening frames and keeps you enthralled without doing anything showy? One example I like to point to is Le Bonheur (1965), a superb pastoral drama that puts the story of domestic instability against a backdrop of some of the most eye-popping colors you’ve ever seen.Running a short and semi-sweet 80 minutes, our tale begins with a blinding flash of orange that fades into the credits unfolding with adapted Mozart music percolating over shots of wafting sunflowers in the countryside. It’s a deceptively idyllic opening as we meet our central couple, Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and François (Jean-Claude Drouot), basking in the afternoon sun after putting out a little campfire with a bottle of Evian. They’re accompanied by their two young children, the picture of happiness (or bonheur, if you will). From there we follow the couple back home to their small town and observe their daily routine, which sounds like it should be dull but instead has a casual, fly-on-the-wall atmosphere that tips you off right away that something’s going to be amiss very shortly. When he’s away for the day for his carpentry business, François meets and becomes smitten with telephone operator Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) — and in case we didn’t have our suspicions already, she has a shiny gold heart pendant around her neck when they meet up to chat at a cafe as a couple kisses passionately behind them. An appointment to put up her shelves turns into an affair that actually causes him to love his own family even more, resulting in a deep personal satisfaction he wants to share.
Incredibly, this was the debut film for both Drouots, a real-life couple whose own children appear here as well. Jean-Claude would go on to a long and successful (and continuing) career, but this would be the sole cinematic outing for the rest of his family. It’s a fascinating film that rewards repeated visits as it never quite operates the way you’d expect; it’s formally beautiful and pleasurable to watch but subtly unsettling, especially when darkness encroaches in the final stretch. A director like Claude Chabrol would have spun this into a web of violence and betrayal, but filmmaker Agnès Varda has something different in mind as the title brings up many questions. Is personal happiness really the best motivation for one’s actions? How much do you have to balance your own gratification against the price it extracts from others? And if you lose your own happiness, what kind of survival tactics do you have to take to find it again?
The plot synopsis here calls the film an examination of “the ideas of fidelity and happiness in a modern, self-centered world,” but I think the ideas here apply to human behavior from any era. “I’m happy and unhappy,” says Emilie at a key moment late in the film, and that seems to be the state of being that’s more realistic for the health of oneself and others. Rather than calling the world here “self-centered” in general, it seems to be populated by people with unfortunate blind spots that lead to pitfalls we can all easily fall into. If someone says they’re happy, do they really mean it? And how shocked should we be if we find out it isn’t true? The montage at the end is a cunning twist on how the film opens, but it leaves you feeling uneasy with what the film is implying about the nature of love, happiness and family security. Some critics and viewers have taken Varda to task for this film as it doesn’t have the overt warmth and humanism of her previous, career-making hit, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), with the implication being that this film should have been told exclusively from a female perspective and doled out some heavy punishment against François. Interestingly, this film came out just as her husband, fellow director Jacques Demy, was enjoying his greatest international success with The Umbrellas of Cherboug (1964), so their relationship was really thrust into the limelight at the time with inevitable comparisons drawn between their work (which now seems like a completely futile mission).
In a 1998 video interview about the film, Varda explained her own rationale for the title (and, by implication, what she was shooting for with the film itself). “For me, happiness is linked to nature,” she says. “I wanted to be outside, surrounded by nature, and have picnics, with a family. Jacques didn’t love picnics, but we had them, for me. We’d sit and eat brochettes, and cook eggs in mud. As each scene takes far more time to film than it actually lasts, I wrote a film with two or three picnics, so I could spend a month outside.” As a result, you can watch this film as a celebration of nature itself, which is largely indifferent to the morality of the people who pass through it and provides just as much happiness from one person to the next.
Varda’s been enjoying quite the renaissance lately with many of her key works hitting home video and the streaming circuit; in fact, you can gorge yourself on a heaping selection of her output on FilmStruck — with a few choices that might surprise you including her tenure in the United States that resulted in looks at the world of Oakland’s Black Panthers (1968) and transplanted California counterculture in the deliberate but tantalizing Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969). Of course you can also take a trip with her most famous later film, Vagabond (1985), which takes a more overtly feminist outlook on the French countryside and the search of self-realization and happiness. However, if you’re new to her work, I think you might be well served by giving this one a shot. It’s not entirely comfortable viewing, but it’s executed with such flair and precision by a young female filmmaker just learning to harness her visual powers that it still has a freshness and immediacy haven’t aged a single day.
The Masters: Agnès Varda theme, including the aforementioned titles, is available on FilmStruck through July 21, 2017.
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