Le bonheur

Le bonheur (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 06/15/09

Le bonheur is another really interesting film from the great Agnès Varda, the lone woman affiliated with the French New Wave.  As I’ve mentioned in past comments, I’d first seen her film Vagabond (1985) back in film school, but for some reason didn’t get around to really exploring her work until last year.  But after watching Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and The Gleaners and I (2000), her unique style and vision and her very singular films are beginning to make her a bit of a favorite.

It’s not that Le bonheur seems a masterpiece, or even that I feel like it’s fully yet sunken in, but rather it’s the way she uses the camera, the way she “sees” things, frames them, both visually and within the narrative that is strange, striking, and hard to catergorize.  It’s easy to suggest a Feminist stance virtually for any female director whose work was by the happenstance of her gender pioneering.  And it’s not to say that the film doesn’t potentially have a distinct Feminist reading perhaps even deeply within it.  But it’s something that arises to an extent, though not in a pedantic or unambiguous way.

The film opens on a pastoral scene, a young family, man, woman, toddler and baby, picnicking in the gloriously colorful summer woods.  It’s almost a standing cliche of an image, but the film whose title translates as “Happiness” lends one to both drink in the visual beauty and the image of familial bliss.  But also, there is a concern that this image, as genuine as it is portrayed and as beautiful as it is, is doomed at some point.

Color is so alive in the film that it’s amazing.  Varda “fades out” scenes to bright hues of blue, green, yellow, red, pink, violet, and then the scenes are alive with natural colors and also the painted hues of bright primary colors as well as the colors throughout the clothing of the characters.  I was reminded of the way that Jean-Luc Godard used colors in Made in U.S.A. (1966), but in his film it felt much more random and pop-arty.  In Le bonheur, there is a grand logic and an elegance to the utilization, not that I understand it as a “code” but as something, much like the music, Mozart, that comments upon the story and pervades and creates the mood or tone.

The story follows the young couple in their simple, beautiful lives.  The husband is a carpenter, a traditional, non-modern job, and the wife is a seamstress, taking jobs of sewing wedding dresses.  Their small home is lovely, their life is almost something from a past era, pre-modern, simple, happy, and idealized.  Until the husband starts an affair with another woman, though he sees the affair as potentially something outside of the traditional family unit, something that could work and be good and expand their lives.  And ultimately, he tells his wife about the affair, hoping for acceptance.

It’s one of those kinds of films which you could discuss and discuss because the meanings are open and even some of the events are mildly questionable.  And what is the ending, with more muted autumnal colors?  Just a part of the passage of time, the seasonal change?

At times, especially at first, I was thinking how much I would recommend this film to people because of the beautiful aesthetic and the charming world.  But as the story darkened, the mood changed and it’s more complex and not necessarily so cheerful.  And that is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend it, because it’s quite amazing, really, just complex and vaguely or potentially tragic.

Varda is a fascinating director, with a unique eye, capable of making the camera “see” the way that she sees.  And the feeling, this film, a femine voice, so different an experience, fresh, vivid, and beautiful.

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