"It all adds up", says Francois to his mistress Emilie, explaining why he can love her and his wife Therese and his children equally. In her brilliant and provocative 1965 film, Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda (The Gleaners and I, Vagabond, Cleo From 5 to 7), raises the question of whether "open marriage" can work and answers it with a definite "maybe".
As the film opens, a carpenter, Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), and his young (real-life) family are experiencing a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park. Shot in pastels and making use of exquisite color fades, Ms. Varda immerses us in the flowers, trees, and lakes of the French countryside. We are lulled by Mozart's languid Clarinet Quintet, yet soon sense that something is amiss. Communication appears superficial and few feelings are expressed. This mood carries over to the scene in their apartment complex where, in a family gathering that includes aunts and uncles, not much happens in the way of conversation.
When Francois is away on business, he meets an attractive telephone operator named Emilie. Soon he declares his love for her and claims that he has enough love within him to include her in his life, "I love you both and if I met you first, you would be my wife". Being honest and open, Francois tells Therese that he has loved another woman for over a month, but says that his love for her and his family remains stronger than ever. The love that Francois experiences is - the film states again and again - a natural occurrence, an addition, not a subtraction. However, Therese cannot separate herself from what has become her identity as wife and mother, leading to tragic consequences. She was, in the words of the lovely song, "Tree of Life", "only known as someone's mother, someone's daughter, or someone's wife."
At the end of the film, Mozart's Clarinet Quintet is replaced by the darker Adagio and Fugue in C Minor. Francois replaces one woman with another and continues his life without reflection, guilt, or self-doubt. In Le Bonheur, the characters are painfully pure and do not question their actions. Perhaps Ms.Varda is saying that, for Francois, happiness is seamless, that it will continue regardless, and that, in his world, people are simply viewed as interchangeable parts. In Varda's words, happiness is "a beautiful fruit that tastes of cruelty".
Agnès Varda's has said, "In my films, I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don't want to show things, but to give people the desire to see". One of the seminal works of the French New Wave, Le Bonheur was audacious in its day and still leaves us unsettled, 37 years later, yet able to see more deeply.
38 out of 43 found this helpful