Le bonheur (1965)

Dir. Agnès Varda. Starring Jean-Claude Drouot, Claire Drouot, Marie-France Boyer

When Francois (Jean-Claude) is telling Therese (Claire) about how much more he feels thanks to his affair with Emilie (Boyer), how much his happiness has been amplified, how much greater his emotions are and how many more arms he can offer to embrace and feels embraced by, it’s impossible not to hear the sound of gold coins clinking in the background. He is, like Scrooge McDuck, diving into his pile of riches, and he is the only one swimming in that pool. The happiness is muted for Therese, who seems to have been perfectly content without having to share him. And the happiness seems less for Emilie too, who earlier on listens to Francois express that he “loves nature” by speaking in a metaphor about how his wife is like a houseplant and his mistress is like a wild animal. He may be holding steady at home, perhaps even happier and more affectionate with Therese than ever before, but only he is benefiting from this influx of happiness. It is not le bonheur that he’s feeling; it’s much more like la cupidité.

For an otherwise humble carpenter who lives in a pretty tight little apartment and whose extravagance is held to Sunday afternoons in the country, it seems shocking that there can be this much avarice in his system. Le bonheur has questions about what makes people do bad things, about what pushes them over the edge to become monstrous. The nudges in this movie are not particularly dramatic; Varda is not remaking White Heat. Apparently it was not going to take all that much to get Francois to tumble into another woman’s arms, or, maybe more accurately, tackle her. A couple long-distance smiles, a suggestion of easily purchased adoration, all of this basically wordless, and before you know it relatively innocent, or at least explainable, moments have turned into Francois telling Emilie he loves her in the same thirty-second span where she tells him her name. Some faces launch a thousand ships, and others launch torrid monthlong affairs in which a man greedy for the joys of a second wife to supplement the joys of his first procures, well, a second wife to replace the joys of his first.

Le bonheur is not shy about finding the appeal in Emilie, even for this happily married man with his two little children at home and an adoring wife. The double-barreled appeal of Emilie is not unlike a double-barreled shotgun in its ability to do instant and lasting damage. From the first: we look down on her a little bit, her body is obscured from sight, and what remains is enough blue in her uniform to set off her eyes and blonde hair, and her instantly warm smile. The smile lingers, regroups, and fires as Francois heads to the phone booth to have his conversation; despite the distance there is a clear line of sight. By the time he leaves this post office for the first time, we know what he must be feeling, even if it’s not a feeling we can share. It must be the feeling of a person born rich who never notices his advantages and believes that he is self-made, the feeling of satisfaction from someone who believes he deserves it precisely because he never had to work for it. Francois has not earned an ounce of the adoration that bursts out of Emilie’s gaze like water from a busted pipe, but he doesn’t act like that’s the case, and because he did not earn it, it’s hard to imagine a process by which Francois could come to really respect it. It’s worth noting that Francois says “I love you” at warp speed, that he pushes the pace with Emilie with so much haste that you wonder if Mike D’Antoni gave this guy lessons in courtship. (Francois takes quickly, rapdily intrudes on others. He rips a piece of a passing baguette off and eats it; he walks away from a café and can’t resist spinning a party’s umbrella.) The film raises a possibility which, given how it ends, is a chilling one. Emilie may well have been playing at the start; it’s possible that for all the sparkle in her eyes, only one of them may have understood that smile as the pistol shot starting a race.

There’s a lot of room for Varda to scoff in this movie, and by and large she chooses not to raise an eyebrow too high or snicker too loudly at a foible. (There’s that moment early on which is a good example of ribbing…Therese asks Francois if he prefers Bardot or Moreau, to which he replies he prefers Therese, and to which the next shot, a terribly crowded wall of pin-up pictures, suggests he and the lads will take as much of either as they can get.) It’s hard to think of a moment where we are meant to meet Francois’ actions or words with straight derision. There’s castigation in the movie as Francois declaims his binary declamations, the carpenter who molds and shapes the products of nature telling his women that they are of nature. Therese is inevitably a plant in these analogies, and that apple orchard thing is far more appropriate than Francois knows, for the trees that do not ultimately bear the fruit that the master of that orchard requires are tossed in the fire. It’s hard to know if Emilie’s one appearance in this analogies as an animal is a relative compliment—is she closer to human than Therese for him, something more like himself, or is she something to be tamed and expressly dehumanized?—but certainly it’s worth noting that none of Francois’ peacocking affirms the ladies as equals to himself. (There are flowers everywhere in this movie, beginning of course with those sunflowers over the opening credits, but they repeat themselves outdoors with Therese and indoors with Emilie, too. In Therese’s warm-colored dresses and Emilie’s overwhelmingly blue wardrobe, floral patterns fill a skirt or cram a sleeve. There’s no escaping this binary, and there’s the suggestion that Francois’ inspiration may not be something from his brain but the touches of flowers in his periphery.) Perhaps more importantly, Francois is up, or above, or looming over Therese and Emilie during these speeches while they are on their backs or reclining. There is a physical dominance which he asserts while speaking that they cannot easily undercut. Le bonheur does not find these sequences jokey. They are deadly serious, every bit as serious as children taking naps under a mosquito net or Therese needing to make a wedding dress while taking care of her kids or Francois heading to work with his fellow carpenters. And why shouldn’t they be serious? It’s not as if Francois is the first guy who’s so carried up with his sophomoric stylings that he ruins other people in the aftermath of them. It does not have to be reasonable, logical, or smart to be dangerous.

There is, however, one place where you can see Varda’s eyes roll, and it is in the movie’s best scene. The excitement of falling in love, especially illicitly, is activated by the rapid cuts, the changes in focus. Francois and Emilie are out to lunch together. They spend more time from here on out indoors, but here they sit under an umbrella among other people under their umbrellas. The constant motion, the frequent movement just outside the focus of the shot, the change from one person to another as that focus, is a little dizzying. The signs themselves seem to unite themselves in the cause of helping the two of them fall in love with one another, practically skulking and plan sight, emblazoned with the words  “suspense” and “mystery.” “Mystery” comes with a price, incidentally. This is a scathing little giggle, ultimately supplanted by an equally scathing guffaw when we pass by a billboard that says “I love you.” We used to look up at the stars for our destinies, saw our futures in the picturesque floating of clouds. Now, in 1965, with centuries of progress behind us, we can find those on marquees and roadside billboards. Ah, quel grand bonheur.

The final ten to fifteen minutes of this movie, which is only about eighty minutes to start with, are so scary that it’s incredible to think this movie came out a full decade before The Stepford Wives. Watching the flashes of Therese’s drowning—a death which the romantic in me can’t help but see as suicide, though there’s something more fitting about the idea of her taking a walk alone and dying from aloneness as opposed to dying because of it—is harrowing. She is so innocent. Nothing about her deserves a death this terrifying, and yet she breathes in a pond; in some short period of time, it’s as if nothing has changed. I wondered what Emilie would make of the inevitable request to marry, in part because the movie really does not give much thought to what kind of mother she might be, or whether she’s interested in the idea, but because it comes with such strings. It comes with “become someone’s mother overnight.” It comes with “supplement my income.” It comes with “make me dinner and wash the dishes.” In short, this basically independent woman is shuttled back a couple hundred years, and it happens with all the resistance that fabric gives a needle. The transformation to domesticity from independence is shocking, down to the fact that Claire’s children seem not to notice that a different woman is tending to them. Therese is not merely replaced, in the end; she is vaporized.

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