Le Bonheur (1965, Agnès Varda)

“I have enough joy for both of you. Happiness works by addition.”

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Francois is so happy, because he has a wife (Therese) who cares only for him and their two lovely kids. He has a rewarding job as a carpenter, and a good relationship with his brother. One day he meets lovely postal worker Emilie and starts an affair with her, and now he’s even happier. Francois has so much joy that he can’t contain it all, so he tells his wife how happy he is to have two lovely women in his life, and an hour later she goes off and drowns herself. A few months pass before Emilie moves smoothly into the role of wife/mother, and Francois’ happiness continues as before.

Explaining the situation to the wife:
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The movie, with its bright colors, prominent music, and unsettling focus and editing tricks, is amazing – probably my favorite Varda movie so far. I’d heard it was a deeply ironic, very unhappy movie but I don’t think that’s true, despite the death (not explicitly a suicide). Varda’s got happiness (in feeling and appearance) on her mind, but isn’t cutting it down or saying it doesn’t exist.

Fade to red:
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Varda: “I imagined a summer peach with its perfect colors, and inside there is a worm. And impressionist paintings, which emanate such melancholy though they depict scenes of everyday happiness. I listened to Mozart, I thought of death’s preponderance. I wrote the film fast, and shot it fast, like the vivid brightness of our short-lived summers. At the time, it provoked much commentary. I said: ‘In a world full of prefabricated images of happiness, it’s interesting to take apart the cliches.'”

Agnes says at the time she hadn’t seen another film called Happiness and she liked the word. I guess Marker didn’t get the Medvedkin reissued until a few years later.

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Lead actor Jean-Claude Drouot would go on to appear in Chabrol’s La Rupture and Klein’s Mr. Freedom, and his wife would continue not to be an actress, never appearing in another film. Marie-France Boyer (Emilie) had a couple starring roles after this, but fades away after 1970.

A few film references: they go to see a Louis Malle comedy (not giving the title or director, so it took some sleuthing), and watch a scene from Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass (an appropriate title, and another impressionism reference) on television. Then there’s the poster below, advertising Wilder’s Irma la Douche, John Wayne in McLintock, and is that Wyler’s 12-year-old Detective Story?
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Movie got a silver consolation prize in Berlin after being beaten to the gold by Alphaville.

The New York Times didn’t get it (and called it Varda’s second feature – I guess if La Pointe Courte didn’t play NYC it doesn’t exist).

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I want to quote the entire Amy Taubin essay because it’s great, but I’ll restrict myself to this bit about the final shot: “When we return in the last scene to this same patch of countryside, it is already late autumn. All that’s left of the sunflowers is their dry stalks. Just as François has replaced one wife with another, Varda replaces the late woodwind quintet with an even later and darker Mozart chamber work—a transcription for strings of the melodic themes of the original piece. The dirgelike sound suggests that as the family, holding hands, walks away from the camera, into the shadowy recesses of the forest, it is already entombed.”

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The DVD extras are all by Varda herself – only other director I can think of who does that is Peter Jackson. Includes an interview between the two lead actresses and Varda’s daughter, which looks like it was edited by a crazy person. Short interviews with the people of Fontenay about their ideas of happiness. Writers’ quotes on happiness (“He who speaks of happiness always has sad eyes” – Aragon), interviews with two people with the last name Bonheur, a doc of lead actor Jean-Claude Drouot visiting the town of Fontenay and talking with locals about their memories of the film shoot, a 1964 documentary of Agnes on the film shoot (below, with husband Demy)
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And four intellectuals discuss the film and its ideas of happiness, from which the following:

Michele Manceaux:
“If [the death] was an accident, it was psychosomatic. I think we can say it’s suicide. But it’s hard to fathom how something as serious as suicide could be treated in a story which is like a fairy tale.”

Frederic Bonnaud:
“Max Ophuls made a wonderful film called Pleasure, not Happiness. And the last line is ‘Happiness is not gay.’ That’s it, someone says, ‘But sir, happiness is not gay.’ And I think Agnes’ film is pretty much an analysis of that line.”

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2 thoughts on “Le Bonheur (1965, Agnès Varda)

  1. Excellent review. I, too, think that the film is not as drab as many would think. Varda resists any moralizing judgment and essential to my understanding of the film is the individual solution to the problem of happiness. Could you provide a citation of the quote by Agnes Varda? I am curious to read that interview. Thank you!

  2. The quoted comment is from Varda’s spoken introduction to the film on the Criterion DVD. The booklet inside has another page by her and the Amy Taubin essay I quoted. Excellent package altogether.

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