And Now . . .
Jeff Reichert on Le bonheur
“We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.” —William James, “The Stream of Consciousness” [Added emphasis, Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts]
In a 2008 essay for the Criterion Collection release of Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur, Amy Taubin begins by asking a number of questions. They’re worth reproducing here:
“Is it a pastoral? A social satire? A slap-down of de Gaulle-style family values? A lyrical evocation of open marriage? Is the central character a good husband who knows how to enjoy life, a psychopath, a cad, or an unreal cardboard construction? Are the implications of the film’s title ironic or sincere? And, indeed, what is happiness?”
Maggie Nelson’s recent work of experimental autobiography, The Argonauts, in which the author explores, in an expansive, James-ian fashion, her relationship and parenting with a fluidly gendered partner, offers an oppositional answer to either/or, yes/no binary queries: yes, and. Throughout her text, the idea of “and,” as posited by James, is weaponized. It signals the individual stressing against collective conformity wrought by labels, conventional wisdom, traditions. It leaves ends opened. It prioritizes neither as well as nor. Maybe, in some way, Nelson and James’s formless amoeba and answers Taubin’s final question as well.
Though Nelson’s (and James’s) and is an attempt to grapple with the slippery contours of lived, personal experience, one could imagine its applicability to an aesthetic practice like Varda’s, which has resulted in a career full of films that are often doing many things at once. Her oeuvre is one of voracious ands, ifs, buts, and bys.
Even her first film, the rough-hewn La Pointe Courte, is structured around an and: it is the tale of “him” and “her” returning from Paris to the southern France seaside village neighborhood in Sête in an attempt to reconcile and it’s an ethnographic tour through the concerns and customs of the peasantry living in that same place. Her later “documentary” Mur Murs works as a visual essay on the murals of Los Angeles that playfully explodes out (and) into an examination of the socioeconomic conditions surrounding their production. Her expansive ideas for this film would lead to the apotheosis of the aesthetic and: an entire companion piece, this time meta-fictional, called Documenteur. The Gleaners and I (note that and right up front) documents the lives of scavengers across France and functions as a self-portrait of Varda’s own grab-bag artistic practice. This could go on.
Formally, Le bonheur (1965), her third feature, with its sun-dappled, becalmed surfaces and linear, unbroken narrative thread, would seem to be the least obviously and of Varda’s major films. Its attentiveness to the environs and people surrounding its main characters is clearly Varda: as in so many of her films, Le bonheur feels like a production mounted surreptitiously within the counters of daily life. There are some jump cuts, some radical still-life compositions (especially during a lovemaking session that recalls Godard’s A Married Woman, made just one year before), the regular use of colored dissolves, and a heavily determined tracking shot in a crucial scene suggesting authorial omniscience, but there are no radical formal breaks, or drastic shifts in mode. Varda does not openly address her audience, as would become increasingly common following her fifth feature, Lions Love (…and Lies). It is, simply, the tale of a happily married father of two who also falls in love with another woman.
There’s a whiff of darkness at the film’s outset: husband François (Jean-Claude Drouot) and wife Thérèse (Clair Drouot), daughter Gisou (Sandrine Drouot) and son Pierrot (Olivier Drouot—yes, these are all members of a real-life family) pass a bucolic, sunny Father’s Day lounging in the woods, but their idyll is scored to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, a sprightly composition with an ebullience that, to some ears, might read as fragile, jittery. When paired with the overripe images of this too-beautiful family (the cinematography is credited to Claude Beausoleil and Jean Rabier), one might discern menacing undertones. The film’s first ten minutes are spent tracking this forest ramble, and it’s difficult to say by the end whether the net result is an earned, sunny optimism or something that huffs and puffs to create an approximation of the same.
When the quartet drives home, it is revealed they live in the kind of shiny suburban development of glass and concrete and perpendicular paved roads that Tati teased and poked at in Mon oncle. Yet, via Varda’s ever-so-slightly overexposed images (her visual referent for the film was the look of amateur family photos and, at the same time, the Impressionists), we can’t easily locate the same kind of critique. Somehow, the rigidity, the clean lines, the organization seem…almost nice. As does the marital existence of François and Thérèse. He’s a carpenter, she’s a dressmaker. They love their kids, have charming extended family nearby, seem regularly sexual with each other. They both pitch in with chores around the house. Sometimes their outfits are even color coordinated. Is this last bit a joke?
About the only discernible sign that trouble is brewing between the pair is a quick moment when, upon arriving home, François doesn’t immediately greet his wife affectionately, preferring instead to flirt with her pretty client. But, after quickly checking her appearance in a mirror, Thérèse asks him, “Why don’t you come to me?” He does, and the two leave the room arm in arm. Later, the two decide to check out a new film, the first in which Brigitte Bardot starred with Jeanne Moreau (perhaps a reference to Louis Malle’s upcoming spy-carnival comedy Viva Maria!, or a sly comment on that pair’s centrality as sexual symbols of the day). Thérèse asks her husband which of the two women he prefers. He responds quickly, believably: “You.”
After their Father’s Day trip, François, drifting off to sleep in his wife’s arms, wonders aloud, “Which do I like more, the smell of the trees, the grass or the river?” a query that reads less as poetic than just rock-headed. Soon after, on a business trip to a nearby town, he spies cute, blonde postal worker Émilie (Marie-France Boyer) and lays on the charm, though it’s never clear if he’s clever enough to wield his flirtations purposefully. Émilie’s not physically dissimilar from Thérèse, but she’s got a smarter hairdo (a chic bob to Thérèse’s dowdier bangs) and her dress seems store-bought and carefully fitted. (Thérèse’s wardrobe suggests she saves her sewing talents for her clients.) When Émilie reveals that she’ll soon be moving to the town in which François lives, its clear that some kind of adulterous drama is soon to take place.
Except that this drama never materializes, at least not in the ways we’ve come to expect it in movies. François doesn’t seem especially tortured by his new dual existence, running back and forth between two women. He’s convinced that happiness is an additive concept, something of an elevated idea for someone so thick, and also a core tenet of the contemporary polyamorous community. “I have enough joy for the both of you,” he argues. There are no scenes where Thérèse suspects anything is amiss, notices a different smell on her man, or idly fingers the lipstick on his collar. And Émilie doesn’t place the usual pressures of a mistress on François. Instead, she worries only that François has come to her because he’s unhappy at home. Her toughest charge is that she finds it “unpleasant” to imagine François with his wife. François insists, “I’m even more myself since I met you.”
When he tells mistress after making love that, for him, Thérèse is a “hardy plant” while Émilie is an “animal set free,” and concludes, “I love nature” it’s groan-inducing, but also not out of character. Is he a “good husband who knows how to enjoy life, a psychopath, a cad, or an unreal cardboard construction?” François seems to me too much a bimbo to deceive out of malice; he’s too openly caring at home to be quickly written off. Still, has everything he’s been telling Émilie to calm her about their affair been merely platitudes so they can continue? Varda makes one wonder about the ways in which platitudes can be both aimed at selfish ends and deeply felt all at once.
Varda’s filmography offers another film that might aid somewhat in grappling with Le bonheur: her Jane Birkin collaboration Kung-Fu Master in which Birkin’s single mom enters into a public affair with a 14-year-old boy. Characters in Kung-Fu Master judge Birkin and her young lover (played by Varda’s son Mathieu) harshly, but the film itself never does. Something of the same seems to be at work in Le bonheur. While on another wooded retreat, François reveals his month-long affair to Thérèse. Her response is muted and quiet, curious but never angry. After their conversation is finished, the pair disrobe and fall upon each other in the tall grass.
Given this harmoniousness, what are we to make of Thérèse’s death by drowning later that same afternoon? Was it a suicide? Would this quiet woman’s reaction to her husband’s revealed desires be so extreme? We see Thérèse in the water in a few quick cuts, her arm raised up to grab at a low-hanging branch. Does this frantic reach suggest an accident, or perhaps the too-late second thought of a suicide? It’s for us to decide. Or not.
Varda never lets Le bonheur devolve into a search for easy answers. Nor is she presenting “all sides” and leaving it up to viewers to untangle their own prejudices in the film’s wake. For every bit of deck-stacking, such as the shots of lions on the prowl intercut with François driving, we run smack into all those massed characteristics of her film’s presentation that signal the complete opposite. I’ve seen many things in multiple viewings of the film. If not much in form, in argument, Le bonheur is all ands, ifs, buts, and bys.
To answer Taubin’s final question of Le bonheur, it would seem that for Varda, happiness is nature, work, camaraderie, family, food, wine, flowers, sun, grass, sex, love, children, adultery, fidelity. Happiness is a virus that infect and spreads. But perhaps there’s an even more provocative answer in the film’s finale, in which the nuclear family has been reconstituted with Émilie filling in seamlessly for Thérèse. Is there some happiness in replicability? In continuance? In recognizing a kind of innate un-specialness in humanity? In the idea that one person could be substituted cleanly for another?
Or are we to glean from this conclusion the overwhelming power of the patriarchy to subsume any and all women into traditional roles?