Agnès Varda’s third feature film (and her first in colour), Le bonheur (1965), is a cheerful, sunny film. A vibrant and enigmatic tale of love, fidelity, and the search for happiness, set to the extravagant music of Mozart. It is a provocative film, but instead of inspiring critical reflection about the societal values that would set the stage for such a scenario, this caricatured portrait of male entitlement and female subservience met a chilly critical reception and stirred up a wide variety of misreadings. Feminists denounced its reactionary representation of passive, empty-headed women, and conservatives were scandalised by the film’s blunt portrayal of sex and adultery.
The film opens with an idealised portrait of marital bliss, with real-life couple Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot playing François and Thérèse. They are happy in love, and they have two adorable children (played by the Drouot’s’ real-life children Olivier and Sandrine). They are an affectionate family, they exchange kisses and hugs frequently, and spend sunny Sundays laughing as they walk, lounge and have picnics in the forest. Varda’s imagery is plush and brightly coloured, and the riverside backdrop of the opening scenes brings to mind Impressionist landscapes with their blurry, pointillist dots of colour and lush natural scenery. It all seems too perfect, too fantastic, as though it had been built purely to be knocked down. Varda herself skewers this sun-splashed fantasy when the family returns from their holiday: Jean Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass, playing on TV, suggests that the kind of cheery, uncomplicated romance portrayed here exists only in the movies rather than in reality.
Yet for the majority of the film, this illusion remains. François begins flirting with Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), a pretty woman who works at a telegram office near the shop where he is a carpenter. Their flirtation seems innocent, natural, and irresistible, and extraneous to François’ marriage. Soon, he begins an affair while remaining truly happy at home—if anything, he is even happier—as he now has two women he loves (and who love him). He discovers that love and joy are “additive,” that by being in love with two women, he has doubled his happiness. The two women are distinctive and offer him different things: Thérèse is sweet, tender, and relaxed, while Émilie is more passionate, wild, and fun-loving. He shares lazy afternoons in the park with his wife and lusty dalliances in bed with his mistress. He truly loves them both, and wouldn’t choose one over the other.
Le bonheur is complicated territory: not just a portrayal of infidelity but an investigation into the very nature of love, marriage and desire. François wants everything from life and reaches for it. He is in many ways selfish and puerile, genuinely believing that he can have his cake and eat it without anyone else getting hurt, without shifting the balance of his life and the lives of those he loves. He is an egotist who really only cares about his own happiness, what he wants and needs. Yet he’s also a kind and loving husband with what appears to be genuine and deep feelings for both Thérèse and Émilie.
He is also honest—or tries to be. He tells Émilie about his wife and family right from the start and makes it clear that he still in love with Thérèse and would never leave her or hurt her. With Therese, of course, he is not so truthful, and his attempt to finally come clean with her results in tragedy. In a creative but cruel analogy, he describes his family as an apple orchard and says that he has noticed an equally lovely apple tree outside the orchard. Thérèse, while seemingly dealing with the news well at first—she asks François to have sex with her, and after his climax, he falls asleep under a tree—shortly afterwards wanders off for a walk and drowns in a nearby pond. It’s not explicitly shown, but it appears Thérèse has taken her own life. François seems genuinely surprised and upset that she is gone but somehow doesn’t seem to comprehend why she wasn’t happy. If he was happy with the setup, then why wasn’t she? Yet still, Varda does not judge and the film’s final act is a lavish collage of images in which Émilie steps in as the new wife, and mother to his children, taking Thérèse’s place without fuss or hesitation. The images have the same colourful, sunny cheer, as they did with Thérèse in the picture, though the context creates a feeling of melancholy around the play and laughter.
Varda deals with powerful concepts here, and placing a real-life family at the centre of the narrative only enhances the unsettling nature of the film. The editing smoothly shifts from abrupt, rhythmic New Wave montages to more leisurely, painterly images, dancing across natural landscapes or fading between images with solid colour fields, like palette cleansers.
Mozart’s compositions drive the film, and the images seem to flow with the music, interweaving with the strings, like they are breathing and pulsating. When François first visits Émilie at her apartment (ostensibly to put up some shelves for her) is a particularly masterful moment. Émilie opens the door and smiles, and Varda cuts dynamically between a closeup shot of her smiling face to a closeup of François, smiling back. The quick, compressed pace of the cuts creates a pounding rhythm for the scene, one that is intensified once François steps inside. Varda brings in cutaways to objects strewn around the room, glimpses of the apartment’s empty interior before panning back to the flirtatious dance of the two soon-to-be lovers as they coyly step around one another.
In an earlier scene, the first connections between François and Émilie take place at a café, where Varda plays with the focus of the image, switching the focus off the couple onto a woman being served a drink or a girl greeting a friend in the background then slips back to the subtle exchange of glances and small talk between the two new acquaintances. The scene is charged with sexual tension: not just the intensity between François and Émilie but the tension between what is happening in the foreground and background, between the narrative and diversion. As they flirt, the scene flirts with leaving them behind, expanding outwards into other stories and other characters outside of the boundaries of this love triangle. Two cutaways cement the scene; signs which read: “temptation” and “mystery.” The allure is too much for them to resist.
Varda’s style is playful and cathartic, open to a lively stream of visual information. François’ infidelity is later envisaged in an extended shot that scopes back and forth across a courtyard where couples are dancing and swapping partners. In the middle of the shot, the focus obscures, and on opposite sides of the dance floor François dances first with Thérèse and then with Émilie, then again with his wife, and everyone’s happy, smiling and content. This represents how François would like his two relationships to play out; both of his women get to ‘dance’ with him, and he enjoys dancing with them both, so everyone is happy. François is deluded by his ego, but yet the women allow it to happen.
Varda appears to be philosophical about infidelity, or perhaps we are missing the point. The film is played out not to be shocking, but as if this is normal behaviour. For some people it is normal. They can be genuinely happy even when they’re breezily wounding the ones they love. Varda avoids the moralist position that adultery must bring misery and ruin: at least some of the people involved in this love triangle are still happy in the end, and that is what is subtly horrifying in this bright and beautiful film.
François never considers what might make either of his women happy. He never suggests that either of them should take other lovers to make them happier—no doubt that would be out of the question as it would be a massive blow to his ego. He assumes that all he needs to give them is himself, and expects them to compliantly accept and forgive. He wants his women to be understanding of his wants and needs, and to do what makes him happy, but to varying extents, neither of them are happy to share him, and they both tell him so, but he disregards their feelings. In the case of Thérèse, this is a tragic misstep. François’ failure to think about her happiness and desires drives her to suicide, which could (and perhaps should) have torn his life apart, but ultimately he is able to simply form a new life with Émilie and construct new happiness from the wreckage of the old one.
Varda ends Le bonheur with an image of the happy family walking away from the camera through the gorgeous, gold-tinted woods, but unlike the similarly blissful family in the opening, it is no longer clear whether this is an image of paradise or dystopia.
On the surface, it may appear that Varda created a far from feminist film with Le bonheur, but the opposite is true. She questions the relationship between the sexes and gender roles. With the figure of the fawning female follower, Varda casts light on what she herself is doing: feigning a naïve subscription to the values of a patriarchal order while ironically mocking it through her exaggerated representation of it. Varda is gesturing toward a revolution of gender roles, criticising their current state of evolution by pushing the logic of male privilege to its absurd extreme. The references to male domination make it clear that in this system, a woman like Thérèse, so fashioned by and used to adhering to its values, would be hard-pressed to find her own voice.
There is no space for Thérèse’s sorrow, and so her only option is to kill herself; that is, to excise herself from a story and a paradigm of happiness that her presence compromises. Thérèse does not even get a voice in her suicide: we are never afforded insight into her emotional state, for the only representation of her death that is offered through the lens of François’s self-exonerating version of it, in which he imagines her trying to save herself. She is totally eclipsed by the sheer domination of his perspective and his power to make everything be about him. Thérèse’s death constitutes a brutal and violent rupture in the narrative, at least from the perspective of the viewer if not from the vantage point of François, who seamlessly replaces her with Émilie.
Thérèse highlights the dangers of compliance: the unquestioning acceptance of the roles attributed to us by society is lethal, if not always physically, most certainly spiritually and mentally. When Thérèse learns of her husband’s cheating, she asks, “Depuis quand est-ce qu’on n’est plus seuls?” (when did we stop being alone?). The answer is that she and her husband were never alone. They are constantly subjected to a cacophony of explicit and subliminal advertising campaigns objectifying women and supporting men in their conviction of the justness of such a system. This film that opens on Father’s Day describes happiness entirely defined by what men want. This happiness is only possible as long as wives and mistresses adhere to the institutionalised script. Their acceptance and performance of the messages insinuated by the media they consume and by which they are surrounded are essential to the continuation of patriarchy.
In the end, it didn’t even matter that Thérèse did everything by the patriarchal book. She was the perfect wife: she cooked, cleaned, sewed clothes, brought up the children, was a brilliant mother, and was always happy, kind, and calm. Yet it still wasn’t enough for François who found he wanted even more, from someone different, someone who could make him even happier in ways that Thérèse couldn’t. Émilie offered that something different, but she quickly took on the role of Thérèse, losing her own wild and fun-loving identity in the process. There is no reason why François wouldn’t do the same to Émilie in his quest for ultimate happiness, and that I feel is the underlying message from Varda. If Le bonheur leaves you disgruntled at the unfairness of it all, it is time to do something about our society that not only allows, but actively promotes patriarchy.
Gender equality has improved somewhat in the 55 years since Le bonheur was made of course, but there is still a long way to go to get the male gaze out of our system. It goes without saying that women also stray from their marriages, and men are often on the receiving end of hurt and betrayal. Perhaps the real message here then is that when reaching for equality, it is not about “if you can’t beat them, join them”, the only hope for everyone, no matter what their gender, is, please try not to hurt anyone while on your pursuit for happiness.
La bonheur is part of the Criterion Collection.