Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Le Bonheur

Le Bonheur (1965, Agnes Varda)

What a trippy little film. After seeing two films from the great Varda (La Pointe Courte and now Le Bonheur), I must confess that I very much like her cinematographic sensibilities. The way she uses the ageless theme of love in her films is what really clinches it for me. In La Pointe Courte, the viewer was privy to the juxtaposition of the harsh economic and social realities afflicting a small French fishing town with a very private discussion between a husband and wife about where their relationship may or may not be heading. In addition to the confident and attractive camera work, I thought that juxtaposition was rather thought provoking (I elaborated a little bit on that in my review). With Le Bonheur, Varda this time confronts the viewer with a direct challenge to the commonly (at least in the West) accepted monogamous relationship. While it is evidently a film that merits repeated viewings, I'll still share some initial thoughts and reactions I had.

First and foremost, my immediate reaction was that this is a very small, but exquisitely made film. It begins in such strange manner. The family, led by the fine actor Jean-Claude Drouot as François the father and husband, is spending a lovely Sunday afternoon in the park for Father's Day. The music accompanying this introduction is beautiful, the colours really pop on the screen, the wife is happy and beautiful, the kids are having a joyous time, even the other people in the park are gay and merry. For a moment I was seriously wondering what in blazes Varda was trying to accomplish other than to seduce the viewer into some kind of false sense of security within this heavenly universe. Surely she will pull the rug from under my feet at some point. She does eventually do this when François encounters the lovely Émilie (Marie-France Boyer) at the postal office, but not after setting up this world of genuine love and happiness. I never once doubted that François was happy and very much in love with his wife, which made the initial flirtation with Émilie all the more provoking, or at least more interesting. Incidentally, I agree with worm on how well played out their initial meeting is. I love the little smile and tilt of of the head Émilie does as she glances at François as he uses the phone booth. Varda has created this man who has such a 'generous' (I guess) capacity to love, that he can genuinely not only be attracted to two different women, but show them both tenderness and compassion, possibly even love (which he claims on several occasions). This was decidedly different from the love triangle stories we watch so often.

Several people in this marathon of pointed out how this ecstasy of love is a challenge to the so called monogamous relationship. I agree with this sentiment, although, as I watched the film, I never felt as though Varda was clearly trying to feed me with that kind of thought or challenge. Yes, I can see how the film fits into that mold, I'm not disagreeing with that argument. Personally, Varda already had my attention with her sense of style and characterization. François is, in many respects, a very likeable character. The man is full of life, he almost always has a grin on his face, and, from what little we see, he's a pretty good family man as well. It just so happens that he possesses so much love, all ready to be spread around, that he's cheating on his wife. The catch is that he doesn't even see this as cheating, which I found extremely compelling. Essentially, I didn't feel anything was heavy handed in this form of storytelling. I simply went along for this ride, regardless of whether or not Varda had some kind of agenda. The movie could have been about something entirely different, and I still would have enjoyed it for its story and characters. What fulfilled my attraction to the movie was how, even once François has begun his flirtation and subsequent relationship with Émilie, Varda preserves this light, practically happy and pleasant tone to the film. With one glaring exception near the end, the film never adopts a dark tone, despite the common perception of what François is doing, namely, that it is taboo and vile.

Which brings me to the film's style, be it the cinematography, music or editing. From the first frame to the last, there were so many things that hooked me here. First and foremost, I learned that this was Varda's very first colour film. My goodness, did she ever take that visual element to its full potential. From the very get go (the Sunday in the park scene I mentioned earlier), everything in the movie looks vibrant and stunning. This pallet is preserved throughout the film, therefore making the movie very pleasant to simply 'observe'. Director Varda uses several interesting visual cues when making cuts. Every so often when a scene would change from one setting to another, rather than have the picture fade into one another, it fades to a rich colour for a brief moment and then actually fades into the next scene. I have only watched the film once so far and sadly haven't picked up on any potential thematic cues hidden in that technique, from just from a more elemental and artistic standpoint, it looked very cool. I also very much enjoyed how the film would cut very sharply and briefly to another image during a conversation. Sometimes the cut was to what a character was imagining, other times it may have been to something a character noticed when walking in a room, etc. This was such a great tool to portray something very real and human, that is, our ability to require only split seconds to think about something or to take a photograph in our minds. Someone tells you a story or describes a person to you, your mind immediately conjures up a picture, a visualization. You will sometimes make a mental note of your surroundings, sometimes for something unique, other times for something completely useless or random. I'm not entirely sure how often this technique really enhanced the storytelling (although there were a few times when it did), but I still felt that is was pretty nifty. A great example of a purely visual, cinematic technique to bring a fascinating human trait to the screen.

A great piece of filmmaking that many a film buff should check out, especially if you aren't intimidated by subtitles (Ha! I didn't need them!).

Only two Varda films in my repertoire, but both are more than sufficient for me to say that she's my kind of storyteller, both from a thematic and purely visual stanpoint. Of the two I've seen specifically, I liked Le Bonheur more.

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