Agnès Varda has just had her 90th birthday and a season of her films is touring UK cinemas. If you’ve never seen an Agnès Varda film, you should seek out your nearest screening forthwith. Varda is a cinematic genius and Le bonheur is marvellous. On the DVD I watched, Varda introduces her film as part of a tribute to her by the TV arts channel ‘arte’. She chooses a vacant lot in her neighbourhood and, because arte is bilingual, she invites a young German boy to translate for her. The wasteland is decorated with posters for her films and she carefully positions herself for the camera so that the backdrop changes to the leaves of a group of saplings waving in the sunshine. She explains that she loves nature and she especially likes picnics, so in Le bonheur there are three. This intro is reminiscent of her autobiographical film The Beaches of Agnès (France 2008) in which she creates a beach on the street where she lives in Paris.
The setting and the approach to filming Le bonheur is in line with Varda’s ideas throughout her career. The location is Fontenay-aux-Roses, a small community in the South-Western outer suburbs of Paris. In 1964 it must have still been almost like a rural village. François (Jean-Claude Drouot) works for his uncle’s small carpentry company. Drouot is tall and handsome and at this time he was the star of a French TV historical adventure series set during the Hundred Years War – perhaps that is why Varda names him François Chevalier (i.e. a ‘knight’). Drouot’s own wife Claire plays Thérèse Chevalier and the couple’s own small children play Pierrot and Gisou Chevalier (none of them are professional actors). Unsurprisingly, family life chez Chevalier often feels like it is being ‘captured’ by a documentary camera – and this extends to scenes featuring other members of the extended family and some of the scenes where friends and neighbours visit the small house or meet the Chevaliers in social situations. (Thérèse is a dressmaker and young women come to her for a wedding dress.) The family are seemingly blissfully happy during these summer months. But Varda has ideas about what ‘happiness’ might actually mean. I guess I should warn you if you haven’t seen the film or heard about its reputation. Many audiences have found the film ‘shocking’ for a number of reasons. The UK film certification board gave it an ‘X’ in 1965 (no one under 16). The DVD I watched carries an ’18’ certificate but the BBFC website lists a ’15’ (confusion like this is not unusual as tastes and moral codes change over time). The ‘advice’ from the board is that the film contains ‘sexualised nudity’. But this isn’t what shocks.
I should place a SPOILER warning here.
I can’t really discuss the film if I don’t reveal the main plot points, so if you want to watch the film without any foreknowledge don’t read on until you’ve seen it. The plot is very simple. François is so happy in his marriage to Thérèse that when he meets an attractive Post Office counter clerk, Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), he feels that he can add to his own happiness by falling for Émilie and loving her as much as he loves his wife. For a time François makes love to both women, sometimes on the same day. Émilie has moved to Fontenay from Vincennes on the other side of Paris and she joins in the local social celebrations, on one occasion attending the same event as Thérèse. The situation can’t last. During an idyllic summer picnic in the woods, Thérèse tells François she’s never seen him look so happy. Unable to contain himself, François tells her about Émilie, assuring Thérèse he loves her just as much as before. He explains this with a reference to an orchard of apple trees. He’s very happy in the orchard with his family, but he sees a beautiful apple tree on the other side of the wall and decides to investigate. Now he is happy inside and outside the orchard. With their children asleep under a bush, François and Thérèse make love. When François awakes, Thérèse is gone. She has drowned in the nearby river, whether by design or accident isn’t very clear. A few months later François and Émilie are re-united with the two small children.
The film was a big success in France and around the world. The DVD carries a short discussion about the film involving four people, two journalists, a producer and a woman running a women’s charity. Two of these people saw the film on release, the others have seen the film more recently (the discussion is in 2005, I think). I suspect that the discussion points will probably be repeated by groups of people who see the film in 2018. The key issue seems to be what did the writer-director, an avowed feminist, want to say in 1964 when she shot the film? To expose the naïveté and arrogance of the man or to satirise ideas about family life and bourgeois ‘happiness’? But before making pronouncements it is a good idea to consider the formal aesthetics of the film. It is very beautiful to watch with images carefully composed and framed. Colour is used in dramatic ways. In her intro Varda explains how after 40 years the colours had faded but how, by painstaking work with original negatives, the restoration has reproduced the colours of the original.
The colours in the film are bold primary colours emphasised in two ways in contrast to the pastel shades of summer picnics. At one point, Varda’s camera (under the control of Charles Beausoleil and Jean Rabier, long-term collaborators with Varda and her husband Jacques Demy) discovers a series of shopfronts, each painted a single primary colour – red, blue or green. Did Varda repaint these buildings? A sunflower set against a field of corn is a study in yellow. Varda also challenges conventions by using fades and dissolves which are suffused by a single colour rather than the traditional black. She uses different techniques to show an instant rapport when two characters meet – cutting rapidly between close-ups. Similar camera techniques are used in other scenes. At one point the camera tracks left and right along a street party scene with locals dancing. As the camera passes a large tree in the foreground, the focus shifts and when sharp focus is regained, the dancers have changed partners. Thérèse is wearing a red dress, Émilie is in green. François dances with both women (there is no suggestion that the women know each other) among several other partners. This scene is a good example of how Varda’s documentary camera is allied to an expressionist sensibility – as it is in Cléo de 5 à 7.
Le bonheur is not a realist film with a sociological underpinning, despite the documentary feel. It’s a film of playful devices and moments of intertextualities. The colours and aspects of the plot link it to Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg – François met Thérèse during his military service and brought her back to Fontenay to marry. One of the strongest links is the tradition of al fresco eating that recurs in French art. At one point a film is playing on the TV set in the uncle’s home. The film is Jean Renoir’s 1959 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass). Both Manet and later Monet produced paintings with the same title during the Impressionist phases. Renoir himself had earlier used the ‘picnic’ as a vehicle to set up a multi-narrative, including seduction, in Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936). In Renoir’s 1959 film an older character pontificates about happiness. The odd thing about this scene is that the film is in colour, but as far as I’m aware, French TV did not begin regular colour transmissions until 1967. This anachronism is repeated with a reference to Viva Maria!, Louis Malle’s film starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau together for the first time. It was not released until the end of 1965 in France but Thérèse tells François she wants to see it. She also asks him (while stroking his back) “Which one do you prefer, as a woman?” “As a woman, you”, he replies. There is then an immediate cut to the carpentry workshop where we see that the door to the food cupboard is festooned with pin-up images of Bardot – and one of Moreau. At first, I thought we see François opening the cupboard door, but it’s one of his workmates. Even so, the cut reminded me of that moment in Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist (1960) when a character swears on his mother’s life and a swift insert sees the old lady keeling over. Just before the Bardot/Moreau moment in Le bonheur, the image of François shaving is juxtaposed with a soap advert that fills the screen with ‘Un savon d’homme!’ (a soap for men!). The sequence immediately before this is a smiling Émilie behind the post office counter, clearly smitten with François. Varda tells a story completely through montage editing. The use of an advert is picked up in Amy Taubin’s essay for the Criterion DVD label which re-released the film in the US. She compares the film to Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). That film takes ‘her’ to be both a wife and part-time prostitute as well as signifying Paris. The film is a commentary on consumerism and politics in the new, ‘modern’ Paris of 1966. In Varda’s film, made only two years earlier, the new high-rise flats of Paris are only glimpsed a couple of times in the distance. Otherwise her film is both ‘traditional’ in depicting small-town France and ‘timeless’ in its exploration of the mores of love and life and community. In the discussion of the film on the DVD, one participant sees it as a story set in a ‘Garden of Eden’.
I love this film. I’ve written nearly 2000 words and barely scraped the surface of what Varda achieved in 80 minutes. I will have to watch scenes again to see just how the editing works before thinking more about the carpenter and his lovely wife and beautiful children. And I haven’t even started on the stamps that Émilie sells and the posters in the Post Office.
In the original trailer below, you’ll see an iconic pop image of Sylvie Vartan but the music on the trailer is Mozart – two pieces which form the main music soundtrack of the film. I’m something of a philistine re classical music and on this occasion I found the Mozart too loud and too distracting but many others have commented on the music as an excellent choice, suggesting that it perfectly matches the tone of the comedy/drama.
HOME in Manchester starts its Varda screenings this week with a 1 hour intro by Isabelle Vanderschelden on Thurs 26th followed by Varda’s first feature La Pointe Courte (1954) and on Friday her latest film Faces/Places (2017) – Le bonheur screens Saturday 4th August. In London, the BFI Varda seasons continues this week and FACT Liverpool has several Varda screenings (Le bonheur on 8th August) as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018. Le bonheur shows three times at Watershed, Bristol in early August and Curzon has a ‘Gleaning Truth’ season of Varda films at various of its cinemas during August. There are other venues with similar programmes so don’t miss the opportunity this summer – check out your local specialised cinema!