Le Bonheur, dir. Agnès Varda

Having struggled with and given up on Le Pointe Courte and then watched a few reasonable shorts, perhaps it was a surprise to find something rather wonderful directed by Agnès Varda. This is what French cinema should be: a few (usually young) couples have a variety of relationships with one another, all shot in a simple, casual manner (like early Godard, like Truffaut, like Eric Rohmer).

At some point while I was watching this, I suddenly found myself wondering, I bet this film has an 18 certificate – and was rather amused to find it did. – And why did I suspect it would warrant it? – There’s certainly no trace of violence in this film (unless you mean violence of the emotions, but even that is – how shall we say? – mostly off-camera). Sex then? Well, in a sense. – In the sense, that is, that you never actually see anybody having sex at all. – So what? It must be the nudity. Well, possibly so; there are certainly naked people in it, and naked in the way only non-Anglo-Saxons can be naked in a film – that is, as if were an entirely ordinary state which people might occasionally find themselves in. There isn’t even – as you might find in many a European arthouse film – any full frontal nudity. We see nothing below the waist.

OK, so maybe it is the nudity, but I’m almost tempted to suggest that it’s given such a certificate because the people in the film find such remarkable joy in being in love. This is again peculiarly European – and particularly French, I feel. In Hollywood (though various exceptions come to mind, like, say, Woody Allen, who is, after all, an honorary European), love is either connotated with violent impassioned sex – that is to say, some sort of lust; or it is a matter of sentimental romance (like I imagine occurs in all those romantic Hollywood films I never go and see). But rarely do you get the sense of that joy which comes from merely being in the same room as the one you love, of lying about naked for pointless hours on end etc. etc.

Rather like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (directed by her husband), Le Bonheur doesn’t follow the conventional pattern of the romance. Happiness (bonheur) is only going to be obtained through some form of suffering. It may be that the boy gets the girl in the end (as we’d all been hoping), but one comes away feeling that that’s not quite what we were meaning by our expectation. I imagine this is why Le Bonheur is considered Varda’s most controversial film; to me, it seemed perfectly normal, a depiction of the way things are.

And then there are the two children. They must be about two or three, I really have no idea. Early on I was thinking, that’s absolutely remarkable that you can get such young children to act like that – the interaction between them and the main two actors is truly extraordinary; it’s as if they genuinely take these actors to be their mother and father, they seem so comfortable with the situation. – It was only later I watched the interview at the end with Varda, in which she pointed out that the two actors were in fact a couple and that these were their children. And this is a thing I’ve found with Varda so far (who slips between fiction and the documentary): that there’s very much a family feeling about her films, as if people become her friends in life, and it’s through this friendship that the idea for the film germinates and becomes reality.

Plenty more Varda to come: my library has two box-sets worth, and there’s another twenty films or so (many of them shorts) on mubi, none of which seem to overlap very much.


3 thoughts on “Le Bonheur, dir. Agnès Varda

  1. A nice review. The only Varda I’ve seen is Cléo de 5 à 7, which was part of a double bill with Godard’s À bout de souffle. I much preferred the Varda.

    Have you seen Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (available on MUBI)? As you might expect from a French film, it involves a youthful ménage à trois. As you might also expect from a French film, it reflects wryly on the interactions between art and commerce. It’s funny, quite beautifully shot, and is good on that grey area between love and friendship where sex sometimes resides.

  2. If Woody Allen is really “an honorary European,” you can keep him! He hasn’t made a good film since the ’70s or so the last I checked, and the last two or three that I’ve seen have been brutally bad. Varda I only know from Vagabond, which I liked enough to purchase on DVD years after having seen it on VHS, so I’m glad to hear good things about this one. I also got a kick out of your comment about the naturalness of non-Anglo Saxon nudity, but I’m easy to amuse that way, Obookster…

  3. Cléo de 5 à 7 is next up in my Varda boxset. – I haven’t watched Adieu Philippine – it’s one of those films I’m always about to watch on mubi. Sounds good.

    When I say Woody Allen, I am blanking out the many worthless recent films he’s made, which, to be honest, I haven’t much watched – apart from that dreadful murder mystery one, in which he plays a magician – although they keep saying his recent films are a return to form. Thinking about it though, Allen rarely seems to take love seriously, as do all these French films – but then I suppose he wouldn’t, since he’s making comedies.

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