April 14, 2008

Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur: Erin's take.

Both Erin Donovan and James Van Maanen volunteered to work their way through Criterion's recently released Agnes Varda collection. And while the odds are they'll more or less agree on the overall quality, each has their own unique takes on these films. We'll start with Le Bonheur (1965).


Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ****

Agnes Varda's third feature film examines the viability of monogamy in the age of free love and the search for happiness in a time of total unrest. Le Bonheur is similar in concept and cynicism to Jean Luc Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (both released in 1965, no less) but contains none of the bitterness of Pierrot. Varda's deep affection for each of her characters even as they make terrible choices that bring them to eventual doom makes a statement about sexual politics and the fleeting nature of human affection that feels modern even watching it forty-three years after it was made.

Francois and Therese are a young, happily married couple with two charming, obedient children (played by real life family Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot and their two children). He works as a craftsman in his uncle's artisan furniture store, she is a dress-maker tailoring to brides to be. As in their work so is their relationship, she is doting and constantly seeking affirmation of his love for her and he, driven by passion. After a chance encounter with Therese (Marie-France Boyer), a younger woman who bears a striking resemblance to his wife, falls in love with her and begins an affair. He rationalizes to both women that the situation is "happiness by addition" pointing out that having a lover on the side makes him a better husband to his wife nor is he a terrible partner to his mistress because she is a modern woman allowed to remain free from the shackles of marital expectations.

Varda toys with all of these ideas just enough to give us some empathy for the man's pleasure-seeking, his wife's blind adoration and the mistress's need for self-destructive exploration. Varda years later would describe Le Bonheur as "a summer fruit with a worm inside." Indeed there's a heavenly quality to this temporary world of happiness by addition, the almost regal manner the men in the carpentry shop treat each other and the work they do, the postal worker gazing upon pages of postage stamps with Chagall paintings on them, an idealistic wife crafting beautiful wedding gowns, picnics in glowing amber fields (to swirls of Mozart) and children that are always charming and laughing.

Varda's background as a painter and sense of dark, whimsical humor give Bonheur a demented fairy tale quality that transcends the bleak narcissism that marked some of the more revered works of the French New Wave movement.

DVD extras include Varda's 1958 short travelogue "Du côté de la côte," about tourism in the French Riviera (that clearly influenced husband, Jacques Demy's musical The Young Girls of Rochefort), several featurettes following up with the cast and a round table discussion of the film with a group of French intellectuals.

See also: All That Heaven Allows, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Red, Donkey Skin.

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Posted by cphillips at April 14, 2008 11:49 AM
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