Le Bonheur

Le Bonheur

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #420: Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur.

After quite a long hiatus from watching Criterion Collection films [and an abortive reentry with Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming], I got back into the swing of things with this charmingly menacing film by Agnès Varda. Foremost, the film is beautiful to watch, with shifts in color signaling shifts in theme, and a subjective cinematography that further refines the viewer’s attention to exactly the bits that Varda is interested in us being interested in. Often a series of zip cuts will alert us to a character’s state of mind by showing us at what they are looking. For the most part those swift bits of ephemera are exactly what the character isn’t paying attention to, like the first time François visits Emilie’s apartment, he looks at everything but her, though we know she’s the only thing on his mind. A similar tactic with a different result is used the first time they go on a date. He stares at her chest while all else is out of focus and she speaks to him, he is out of focus while talking as she observes the couple behind him.

Le Bonheur

But for all of the quick cuts and strange uses of focus, the film proceeds at a stately pace and seems to cover much more diegetic time than one short summer. I think much of this feeling is accomplished through the editing, short scenes that consist of long takes result in cuts that elide time only, leaving space to be filled by the moments on screen. At one point a series of extreme close-ups illustrate the ping-pong progression of François from wife to mistress and back. The grace of the editing is further enhanced by the use of still lives. shots are framed and held in such a way that the mise-en-scène becomes a character; a rumpled bed, a kitchen window, a flower arrangement, all are signifiers for the true state of things. Lastly, an entire paper could be written on the use of Mozart; he isn’t a character in the film, but his music serves as narration and underscore for the emotional aspects of the storyline. I’ll leave it at that. It is better experienced than described.

Le Bonheur

The story starts out in mundanity and continues in this vein for the majority of the film. This focus on everyday activity is the strongest emotive force; it sucks the viewer in with recognition and betrays the viewer with the insidious same. It is a story about a happy family and the happy husband/father who happily starts a happy affair because he is so filled with happiness. It eventually all comes out in the wash, with fairly predictable consequences, but the final few bits of the film turn the mundane into a psychological horror show for the viewer [but not for the characters]. This masterstroke acts something like a warning for those who are looking for one, but seems more akin to documentary than morality play to me.

Le Bonheur