Often referred to as one of the most beautiful movies ever made, this lushly photographed film established Agnes Varda (Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7) as one of France's most important directors. Upon its original release, Le Bonheur (which translates as "happiness") sparked controversy with the story of an amiable young carpenter who decides that he will be happiest with both a wife and a mistress. Though Francois adores his wife and children, his passion for a beautiful postal clerk leads to an adulterous affair and tragedy for his wife. Filled with warm colors, Renoir-inspired bucolic images, and Mozart music, Le Bonheur is a sensuous poem of a film that illustrates how the search for personal happiness can lead to gratification or destruction.
Set in the Paris suburbs, this lovely tale of a tragic love triangle looks like an impressionist painting come to life, the delicately hued colors of the picturesque French countryside creating an impossibly idyllic existence belied by the churning drama underneath. A young carpenter with a loving wife and family falls for a pretty postmistress. To his bohemian philosophy it's perfectly natural to enter into an affair because it will only increase his happiness, but his wife is not so understanding. Agnes Varda creates a strange tension between her happy, smiling characters in their sun-drenched Eden and the melodrama and emotional conflict played out in that paradise, even transforming tragedy into an oddly happy ending, keeping her distance from her characters, neither judging nor encouraging them. The playful style echoes her New Wave compatriots with startling flashcuts, out-of-focus portraits, and silly word games played by both the characters and the director, but her aloofness creates a disconnection between the characters and their actions, as if they are not really responsible for the tragedies of their lives. Controversial at the time of its release, Le Bonheur remains one of the most visually beautiful films of the 1960s and a work that still offers a troubling but tantalizing dissonance. --Sean Axmaker
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Throughout the film the music of Mozart is used, specifically the Clarinet Quintet, much of it enormously cheerful and beautiful but with a melancholy undertone always struggling to break to the surface - and this describes the film as well. Each segment of the film is broken up by a day in the country as the family leaves the confines of their medium-sized provincial city - each segment (save the last) begins in a carefree, naive and innocent happiness and the exquisite photography romances both the beautiful couple with their children and the countryside. Nothing could be more gorgeous...
But in fact François seems to suffer from an excess of happiness - he actually says as much at one point - or rather, he is incapable of feeling anything deep at all and experiences only a shallow surface thrill at the beauty of both his wife and his new love. He can't ever really decide between them and seems unable to grasp that he should even be thinking in that way, and that there might be problems developing as a result. I don't think it's any coincidence that Émilie bears a strong resemblance to Therese - blonde, roughly the same height and build, affecting fairly similar clothing and in the end, doubling in every way for her predecessor. François doesn't really want something different - he wants more of the same - or rather, he just wants to adore and be adored in a simple and childish way without thought of consequences. Perhaps it wouldn't matter if Émilie was strikingly different from Therese - but then perhaps it wouldn't be as obvious to us that all the man sees is the surface, and one surface seems as good as another...
At the climax of the film, the end of the third part, François confesses his affair, and it's obvious that he has no comprehension that it could be a problem - he has enough love for both of them, you see. But Therese, perhaps as incapable as he is of truly adult comprehension or communication, nevertheless is capable of rejection, and she does so in dramatic and final fashion, forcing him to choose by removing herself from the equation. At the end, Émilie has replaced her in every way and the only person who has apparently learned anything is the one who ended her life.
Varda deliberately creates a film that is all bold surfaces and colors - bright reds, pastel blues and greens, sunny yellows - and it is her use of color and editing that define the melancholy that underlies the happiness. When Émilie shows François her apartment for the first time there is a series of very quick cuts that show her possessions as François looks around, as if to show that in a few seconds he has taken in all he needs to, that he has found what he's looking for and doesn't need to think about it. And he never does.
All three characters are fairly shallow, at least the film doesn't explicitly show us anything much to contradict that, and this leads to an extraordinarily cynical feeling, particularly on a second viewing for me - really, she seems to be saying, if we don't think and don't communicate with each other, if all we want is happiness, then what difference does it make if one person drowns herself - if that was her choice? One woman is as good as another, a new mother can do the same job as the original, let's just go on with our daily lives and forget about the darkness. The sole person who may have actually thought matters through with any understanding, Therese, is ultimately the one who can't exist in this world.
It's also helpful in watching this I think - or at least, it gives the film even greater resonance - if one has seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg made the previous year by Varda's husband Jacques Demy, which makes a fascinating counterpoint. Where "Le bonheur" has the rhythmic feel and glossy surface of a musical, the Demy film actually is one; and where Varda's film actually ends up a tragedy - but wrapped up in cozy beauty - Demy's film is only a Hollywood tragedy. Did the wife make her savage piece of cynicism in response to her husband's bittersweet romance? I don't know, but it's fascinating to think about the many parallels...
On the whole, I think "Le bonheur" is one of the key French films of the 60s, it stands for me with the much-better known works of Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol from the decade and it is certainly a powerful philosophical statement about the nature of relationships, fidelity, "happiness."
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