The aesthetic of Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur is strikingly deliberate. Her title cards are filled with sunflowers. All her characters — members of a lovely little family — wear a rainbow of colors. There’s a verdant gaiety to the forest landscape around them. The score comprised of the buoyant elegance of Mozart does wonders to accentuate this very salient mood. In short, it’s gorgeous. Surely this is happiness personified.
In the middle of the 1960s, that turbulent time of upheaval and the nouvelle vague, it deigns to be domestic and cheerful in a way Godard would never dare and Truffaut could only manage through a boyish point of view.
But it has such a vibrant and daring color palette on par with anything in Contempt (Bardot included), Pierrot Le Fou or Weekend. In fact, this could very well be her answer to a glorious Jacques Demy musical (her husband) and a predecessor to Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board.
The couple’s children are adorable as they toddle around, ride in the back of the family truck or feed sugar cubes to their daddy’s horse — the bicycle he rides home from work every afternoon. Like any young kids, they like to imagine, they’re enthralled by a newborn baby, and they take naps (under the mosquito netting their mother puts out in the forest for them).
By this point, the movie could feel sickening and twee, but there’s an impulse to see the movie out and where it might go. It leaves some questions about a dramatic situation with its title (especially with how fiercely unironic it resolves to be from the outset).
When they return home to their idyllic town, it’s little different. True, the husband, Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), wants to see a western at the cinema — a prototypical American film. His wife Therese (Claire Drouot) is enchanted by a French film, the first pairing of “[Bridgette] Bardot and [Jeanne] Moreau.” Otherwise, they seem perfectly aligned, going to work and raising their family together.
This all quite effectively lulls us into a false sense of security. Varda knows quite well what she’s doing. As an audience, we want to believe this is what life is like, but we are privy to a movie and so something must change…If there is a source of drama, it’s when the man starts to flirt with a local telephone operator Emilie (Marie-France Boyer). Even this tête-à-tête is light and affable. They feel innocent enough. Hardly prepared to wreck a home.
His wife and his lover aren’t mirror images exactly — they look different — but Varda does very little to distinguish their visible traits (ie. blonde vs. brunette or juxtaposed costuming choices). They’re both pretty young blondes, affable, draped in bright colors. It feels like a curious coincidence until it builds into something more.
This trifling love affair morphs into exactly the kind of circumstances the exterior does its best to dispel. Surely infidelity does not have license to break into such reverie and tear a family apart. This does not fit with the perfect marital equation or the glorious mise en scene.
So we begin to discover a kind of perturbing even disheartening dissonance about the picture as it continues to break with reality. It builds and begins to ambush us with new contradictions.
Here is a man deliriously happy, both with his wife and then with another woman. He assures his new love, “I have enough joy for both of you. Happiness works by addition.” Then when he cordially breaks it to his wife he says, It’s as if he has 10 arms to love her and he has extra arms (to love someone else).
It doesn’t matter how emphatically or candidly he says those words. They come off poorly. Even as he continues to live in his rapturous dream world without consequence, for the first time the words ring out in the landscape with an inherent hollowness. It’s yet another signal of paradise lost. We have hit upon a point of no return.
Le Bonheur is devastating in a manner that I never would have imagined. Because Varda finally does allow the film’s glorious bliss to crack even if the tone and coloring never waver or fade. The way the young carpenter relives one horrifying moment over and over again in front of the camera feels reminiscent of C.S. Lewis when he wrote about grief and how “The same leg is cut off time after time.”
However, now we have a suspicion of where it might go. The final few minutes of Le Bonheur are not a total surprise; they do feel like a shocking betrayal of our initial assumptions. This is not a criticism; it simply shows how effectively the movie evolves over time while maintaining a certain surface-level palatability. It’s ceaselessly beautiful to look at even as the currents turn.
Whatever its reputation, Le Bonheur feels commensurate with some of the most unnerving psychological horror films and thrillers I’ve seen through the ages. I think of the uneasy denouement of Gone Girl or the unsettling conspiracies in Rosemary’s Baby or Get Out. The curious part is how the perpetrators have no idea what they have done. It’s not a film of premeditated plots, more “happy” accidents, and this in itself is terrifying.
Because we have the same set dressings, the same motifs — almost everything feels the same — but we have an entirely different context. If we’ve settled back into a comforting equilibrium, then something almost imperceptible grates at us. Something has soured with the happiness set before us. It establishes a level of disquietude I won’t forget for some time. Surely something is not right here. I leave it to each viewer to reconcile it for themselves.