Le Bonheur (Agnès Varda, 1965)
So I finally come to the actual film picked for the marathon, which turned out to be the last one I watched in the series. Unfortunately, she couldn't stay to do a Q&A since this was a late show.. so no fun anecdotes to accompany this one!
As it turns out, this also seems to be the hardest one for me to write about. First of all, the whole film just felt like a fable to me. The characters all feel like these heightened versions of reality and the whole story at one level just feels really simplistic. For instance, in the very first frame which shows a family enjoying a picnic in the country and this entire scene is just too fairytale-like in its perfection. The man is just too perfectly tall, dark and handsome and the woman is blonde and pretty and wholesome and their two kids who look just like their mother are always smiling and playful and charming and the countryside looks like a Renaissance painting that just decided to come alive for this occasion. Everything is just far too idyllic and perfect. And even as the story progresses and gets perhaps less idyllic, it continues to stay really simple at least on the surface.
While introducing the film, Varda talked about her decision to cast Jean-Claude Drouot who was a successful and well-known TV star in the film and more importantly, to cast his wife (who wasn't a professional actress) and his kids in the film. She seemed very satisfied with the decision and felt that it really helped make the family dynamic seem really natural and true to life. She also described the film itself as a wonderful perfect-looking summer fruit that contains a worm inside it!
Anyway, so back to the film itself, I thought the family dynamics really did work well. The married couple seem completely authentic and somehow the entire Drouot family, including the kids, seems to be able to be around each other as if there are no cameras around. Again, I am compelled to call attention to her ability to film these domestic scenes as if she just stood there in a corner and shot them as they carried on with their normal lives. Likewise with the scenes in the carpenter's workshop. The way she is able to capture that sense of camaraderie amongst the men is pretty great.
When the other blonde girl in the post-office is first introduced to us and we see her interact with Francoise, here again I was struck by how simple and natural the flirtation between the two appears. They are both young and good-looking and somehow it seems perfectly natural that they should smile at each other and get talking. I think one of my favorite parts of the film is that even as we watch this and anticipate what is to come, the way she films this interaction is so cheerful and the two people in question are so immensely likable that one almost doesn't notice that the scene isn't eliciting the usual disapproving reaction. And that sorta helps me understand skjerva's view of the film as an attack on monogamy. However, ultimately, I am not sure that I agree with that point of view but more on that later.
This is where I think Varda sort of plays with our expectations regarding what is to come next. Either that or I just can't predict how French people will behave in a certain situation
. For one thing, the man basically seems to be reasonably honest with the women. Also, he seems to find for himself a definition of fidelity that somehow manages to allow him to love two women at once. Again, things that I think support the anti-monogamy view of the film.
Where I think the film takes a turn is during the final act where we see that his actions do have consequences. I think this made at least a few people at my screening view the film in fact as being against the free-love culture. But I felt like the film doesn't necessarily take that position either.
Finally, we see though that the consequences are far from fatal for Francoise. We see that Emilie has just replaced Therese as the wife and mother in the family. But just as I started to wonder about the fact that she is perhaps letting the man off too easily by giving him the opportunity to resume his life as before, I also realized that she shows that Francoise has effectively tied the formerly rather free-spirited Emilie to a life of commitment and domesticity. So she does finally get us to question his actions.
I just loved the visual flourishes in the film. This is Varda's first color feature and it's overall just lush and colorful and beautiful to look at. But more importantly, I love the way she uses these little visual cues to add humor and even convey what could be rather heavy themes in such a lighthearted way. There is the obvious use of advertisements (billboards) and storefronts and so on to hint at what is possibly going on in the characters' minds or to just make us chuckle
. Secondly, the use of colors which I think was very deliberate but I didn't really get a chance to make notes on what color is used in which part to be able to make any sense of that stuff. Finally, when Emilie moves in as his wife, she is even wearing a dress that is eerily similar to the one that Therese is wearing in the first screen (if only I had screenshots for all this
).. not to mention the fact that both Emilie and Therese are almost the same shade of blonde and both are really pretty just in slightly different ways. Oh and the scene where Therese wants to go watch a film with Francoise and she excitedly tells him, "It’s Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau together for the first time". She then goes on to ask him which one he prefers, a question that he wisely answers by telling her that he prefers her to both of them. But then Varda cuts to the carpentry shop and we see that the men's locker is covered with posters of Bardot with only one picture of Moreau in the bunch.
I do think that the film sort of sets up this conflict between nature and society.. this idea that desire is natural but that we need the structure of family (and monogamy) to function happily in society and how do we resolve these two opposing forces. How does one find a reasonable code to live by given that love / desire doesn't seem to follow these neat rules. However, I didn't think that she takes a stand in one direction or the other but rather just poses these questions to us.
I also felt that the film sort of raises this idea that despite being unique individuals and so on, we are all still ultimately replaceable. The two kids love their parents but are soon happy to have Emilie to take care of them and play with them. Even the uncle and his wife and the family friends seem to have accepted Emilie as their own. I found this aspect of the film really tragic.
Loved the use of Mozart's music for the score. I think it worked brilliantly in the film.