In retrospect, Agnes Varda is one of the major figures of the New Wave, and created what is arguably the first New Wave film (1955′s La Pointe Courte), Varda was something of an outsider to the group of Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-filmmakers who dominate discussions of the New Wave to this day. A formally trained photographer and art historian, her associations were primarily with other Left Bank artists and filmmakers like Marguerite Duras, Chris Marker, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose narrative experiments informed many of the more adventurous films of the era.
Le Bonheur is Varda’s third feature film, and stars Jean-Claude and Claire Druout as Francois and Therese, a middle-class couple living happily in the Parisian countryside with their children, played by their real-life children Olivier and Sandrine. He works as a carpenter, and she as a seamstress. They dote on their children and seem utterly devoted to each other; yet after Francois meets a pretty young clerk at the local post office, he wastes no time in pursuing her.
Francois’ rationalization of his infidelity, which he insists increases his family’s happiness at no cost to his relationship with Therese, in a sort of perverse take on Mill’s utilitarian ethics, is at the root of Le Bonheur‘s atmosphere of unease and inevitable tragedy.
Stylistically, Le Bonheur is most famous for Varda’s masterful use of bright, oversaturated color (including fades to vivid primary colors instead of black in scene transitions) and for its minor-key Mozart score, but she uses subtler aesthetic strategies as well. Varda’s use of jump cuts, for example, might seem similar to Godard’s jump cuts. But, where he often used jump cuts to distance the viewer from his films by emphasizing their artificiality, Varda employs them more subtly, often to convey a character’s subjective view of a scene or emotional state. Also reminescent of Godard is the presence of advertising and pop culture, but again, this is deployed sparingly (a ye-ye pop song in the style of France Gall, ad posters featuring smiling women, a wall of pinups at Francois’ workplace).
Le Bonheur is a singular film both in the New Wave as a whole and Varda’s body of work, and remains controversial and much-discussed even today.
By Ryan Hupp
Le Bonheur screens this Wednesday
September 28, 7:30 p.m.
L’Etage / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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