My earliest exposure to Agnès Varda’s work was as an intently unfussy documentarian. Her recent films Faces Places and (my personal favorite) The Gleaners & I are heavy on ideas and light on meticulous craft. Varda has a punk, D.I.Y. sensibility to her recent docs that embrace the affordability & portability of digital camcorders, freeing her from the struggles with financing that have cramped her entire career. It was jarring, then, to see a film from Varda’s past that deliberately recalls the overproduced artifice of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor “women’s pictures.” The 2014 digital restoration of Varda’s 1965 melodrama Le Bonheur (supervised by the director herself) is a gorgeous, over-saturated indulgence in Spring & Summertime textures. The film is so rich with color that the screen is often filled with a single, opaque hue: red, green, blue, white, purple. Its idyllic Eden setting is a true immersion in Natural delights, a far cry from the sickly digital realms of Varda’s recent D.I.Y. docs. However, the political subversion & playfully abstract humor of her documentary work is still strongly represented just under that flower-carpeted surface. Le Bonheur is much closer to the Sirk-riffing bitterness of punk works like John Waters’s Polyester or Russ Meyer’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! than it is like Sirk’s studio lot work itself. She just happened to get there a decade before Meyer or Waters, delivering her own caustic subversion of the All That Heaven Allows era before that inspiration even had time to cool.
One of the most striking things about Le Bonheur is what it pretends to be: a judgement-free, matter-of-fact portrait of polyamory & extramarital romance. For most of the runtime, the film follows a chipper family man with the ideal wife-and-kids home life and just enough contract work as a carpenter to keep their world afloat. Without any malice or harm intended to a wife he dearly loves, he thoughtlessly slips into a sexual affair with a nearby postal worker whose childless, youthful life in the city excites him. As he describes it to his mistress, “My wife is like a hearty plant. You are like an animal set free. I love Nature.” For a while, Le Bonheur appears to agree with his naïve assertion that he can love both women equally to neither’s detriment. It initially presents itself as an idyllic French New Wave advertisement for the virtues of polyamory & the dissolution of traditional monogamous bonds of marriage. All that proto-Sexual Revolution moralizing is deliberately undone in the final fifteen-minute stretch. Seasons change. Lives are destroyed. The desire to maintain simultaneous relationships with a wife and a mistress under the blatant power imbalance of men’s freedom to skirt domestic responsibilities is exposed as an impulse of selfishness & entitlement. Is the wandering husband really so full of love that he can maintain simultaneous relationships with multiple lovers or is he merely a selfish, privileged lush who treats women as disposable, replaceable household appliances? Le Bonheur doesn’t decisively answer that question, but does allow it to hang bitterly in the air.
Although the surface details of Le Bonheur recall 1950s studio-made melodramas/”woman’s pictures,” Varda subverts that perception with experimental film editing techniques of the avant-garde. The washes of opaque color appear to mark subtle changes in relationship dynamics & mood over time, but with no concrete correlation that could be expressed in words. The pastel voids of interior domestic spaces recall the intense wall paper realms of the candy-coated musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & Young Girls of Rochefort (both directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy). Speaking of extratextual, real life romances, the married leads of Le Bonheur (Jean-Claude & Claire Drouot) were a real life couple as well, a kind of reality vs artifice tension that informs weirdo passion projects like A Woman Under the Influence or, more recently, mother!. Varda’s flair for expressionistic, art house filmmaking is most readily felt in her experiments in abrupt jump cuts. The film opens with an upsetting alternation between a symmetrical & an asymmetrical sunflower. A romantic tryst is depicted through quick shots of tangled, exposed flesh, confusing which details belong to which body. A dizzying dance scene is disoriented by partners swapped during a wedding celebration and telegraphsthe anxiety over the interchangeability of sex partners that later upends the plot. In its early honeymoon period, Le Bonheur resembles a Springtime Polaroid, a rigidly framed document of idyllic, Natural growth. Varda subtly disrupts, subverts, and rots that first impression as the film’s shifting romantic dynamics settle into a consistent groove, prepping her audience for the last-minute rug-pull that distorts any perceived advocacy for undisclosed polyamory.
Agnès Varda herself describes Le Bonheur as a “beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.” That kind of social & political subversion lurking under the surface of what first appears to be a breezy delight seems to be consistent with the documentary work she’s buried herself in recent decades, which are way more fun to watch than their themes & subjects might suggest. What distinguishes Le Bonheur is how extreme of a delight its surface appears to be. The floral, color-soaked Eden where she stages her adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from Waters, Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.