Sunday, February 14, 2016

Agnès Varda | Le Bonheur (Happiness)

a kind of fraud
by Douglas Messerli

Agnès Varda (writer and director) Le Bonheur (Happiness) / 1965

Agnès Varda’s 1965 film, Le Bonheur begins in a paradisiacal landscape representing a happy couple and their two beautiful children on a country outing on a sunny Sunday afternoon.


      The husband, François (Jean-Claude Drouot), a handsome hirsute being, is asleep on his beautiful wife’s lap. The children, encased in a kind plastic tent are also sleeping. Everything in the world seems nearly perfect, and when they awaken they together walk through woods, ending in a lily-pond straight out of Monet. As the hero openly displays, his life is filled with happiness, a feeling subtly reiterated by the fact that Thérèse and the two children are Drouot’s real-life family as well.
      The following day, we see their work-a-day realities: François is a carpenter, working for his uncle, and Thérèse labors at home as a dressmaker. Given that she also cares for the children and cooks her husband’s meals, it does appear that Thérèse has a harder time of it, particularly since her customers demand that create a new wedding dress in a couple of weeks. Yet it is clear that both enjoy what they’re doing, living lives that create things, as opposed to the more passive job of simply taking and sending messages as does Émilie Savignard (Marie-France Boyer)—the equally beautiful women with whom François also falls in love.

      The new relationship happens gradually and quite simply over a couple of weeks, culminated by Émilie’s move to the same city where François and his wife live. 
      François admits to Émilie that he is perfectly happy in his marriage and is not seeking anything beyond it; the new relationship, he insists, simply brings him even more happiness, a joy which he didn’t even know he was missing. Yet, he also suggests that had he met Émilie first he would married her, and suggests that she is more adventuresome, a person closer to his own personality than is his more “sturdy” and perhaps predictable wife.

     What is quite amazing about this male-centered film is that it has been directed by a feminist, who tells this tale of male infidelity without openly condemning her “hero.” Indeed, François remains a good husband and father, refusing to abandon any of his commitments to his family, with whom he continues to share lovely weekends in nature. If anything, François, in his double sexual life, seems to have even more love and joy to share with everyone, even his working friends. Émilie, moreover, seems perfectly happy with the situation.      
    Accordingly, it becomes difficulty to evaluate the moral situation of this almost magically-blessed couple. No one seems to be hurt by the existence of François’ ménage-a-trois, and life for all seems continually blessed. Yet we have the feeling, somehow, that the male, in his silence, is somehow not being quite fair to his wife; how, if she were also to take on another lover, might he react? And how would such a situation affect his growing “happiness”? 
     Thérèse herself perceives François’ increasing joyfulness, and finally seeks to understand its source. Wishing not lie to his loving wife, François explains what has happened, trying to explain to her that it means no less love for her or the children: we love each other with ten arms each, but I have simply discovered that I have another set of arms. Indeed, she seems to accept his theory as they have make love, as in the first scene, in an open field.