April 14, 2008
Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur: Jim'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: James van Maanen
Rating (out of five) *****
Funny to call a movie a masterpiece when you're not really certain that you like it all that much. But I'm afraid Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur qualifies for just this adjective-overused as it may be-along with the caveat. I first saw the film, controversial upon its debut and even more so today, during its initial American release over 40 years ago. Revisiting it, I find it holds up even better than I remembered--possibly because I am older and, I hope, a bit wiser than I was in my 20s.
Varda is a true artist who has always gone her own way. She does what she wants without, I suspect, any particular chip on her shoulder, though she is definitely--if not defiantly--non-mainstream. Here, she explores the title subject, happiness, via a delightfully happy, healthy, and beautiful family of four: dad, who's a carpenter; mom, a loving housewife; their two charming kids; and--oh yes--an attractive young postal worker whom dad meets when he has business in another town. Her movie is simply exquisite to look at: sunny and colorful, full of pastels (even the fades from scene to scene are often accompanied by a brightly colored background). A sunflower in glorious bloom opens the movie and perhaps subtly sets the tone for what is to come.
Whatever you think of the film itself, it would be wise, post-viewing, to watch all the DVD "extras" that Criterion has assembled for this special four-film, boxed-set release. These include interviews with Varda about Le Bonheur and its reception; a look at its handsome star Jean-Claude Drouot in recent days, as he comes back to the town in which the movie was made; a talk with its two leading ladies forty years on (Drouot's actual wife Claire plays his screen-wife; they remain married today, and she credits the movie for possibly helping them achieve this). Of particular interest is the roundtable discussion with several French intellectuals about the film, then and now. In this latter section, the "takes" on Le Bonheur are amazingly diverse, and yet the movie incontestably fulfills each person's opinion of it.
You can see it as a simple-minded fable, a kind of modern-day horror story, a feminist tale, or a no-hold-barred look at what happiness means. You can also see the VERY fulfilled husband as a sweetheart, a realist or a monster--and his wife as tragic victim or sap. Every view, in its way, works. Yet the movie seems neither pointless nor silly because Varda simply presents her story to us, without forcing any of its issues, meaty though they be. Her movie takes account of some of the most profound questions that dog our love/marriage/social lives--without placing one viewpoint above another or offering easy answers. During one of her interviews on the disc, Varda notes that, in telling her tale of what defines happiness, she needed "to find the worm in the apple." She has.
Le Bonheur disturbed me enormously when I first saw it. I recall having huge arguments with good friends regarding its "morality." Today it disturbs me all over again, but this time I find my older self disagreeing with my younger and discovering much more in the movie than I had earlier seen. There are many ways to look at the characters of Le Bonheur. The key to them--and to their creator--is that all are fallible beings trying to make the best of their world. This is a landmark film.
Posted by cphillips at April 14, 2008 12:47 PM