Criterion Sunday 420: Le Bonheur (1965)

This is a bold film, not just because of its saturated colours (shades of Varda’s husband Demy), but because it’s open to interpretations. On a surface level it depicts a happy marriage between two beautiful young people (real-life couple Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot), but the husband feels attracted to another woman (Marie-France Boyer) and begins an affair with her, which itself is happy, and then he makes a grand speech about how this is all part of life and the love he has to give is infinite and it’s making everyone happy, and… well… that’s hardly all that’s going on, because it feels like a pretty angry film really, and one that is pointedly angry about this state of affairs. Yet it’s probably possible to miss this, and to read it any number of ways; I just choose to hear the rage.

Part of what’s challenging about Varda’s film, though, is what it doesn’t give you — it doesn’t give you heroes and villains; it doesn’t provide any real voice to its female characters; it doesn’t make clear what happens to the protagonist’s wife near the end — but I see that as part of what it’s doing in terms of satire. Because at a certain level, this is just presenting the events as you might get in any kind of romantic drama made by a man, in which a husband falls for a new woman and makes a new life with her. However, you could hardly mistake this for a film which is uncritical or unaware of the operation of patriarchy. For a start, the filming and montage work is so clear: the man’s first coffee with the woman he meets is in a cafe, where the camera cuts to a sign on the wall reading “temptation” and then frames her head with it very carefully in the background, with a similar sign for the man. All of their meetings, in fact, get a fragmented montage style, as they move through spaces like two figures in a cubist painting. What’s most challenging of all the formal techniques, though, I think, is the way the tone never veers from what the title suggests: bright saturated colours, classical music, idyllic pastoral scenes of happy family life and just constant smiles throughout as the husband emphasises his happiness, and the abundance of love he has to give. Except for a brief silent moment of fleeting pain, everything has the same bland sense of bonheur, as if this could be an ad for a travel company or some kind of lifestyle brand. But underneath it all is, clearly, rage.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claude Beausoleil and Jean Rabier; Starring Jean-Claude Drouot, Marie-France Boyer, Claire Drouot; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 6 August 2018 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, Wellington, Friday 23 April 2021).