Agnès Varda

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Elizabeth Sussex

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When Resnais or Godard use a series of fragmented shots, they do it with a purpose that is visually cumulative; the whole sequence will stand for more than any one or two of its parts; style and content are inextricably linked…. [In Le Bonheur] fragmentation is simply a method of varying the presentation of a series of pretty pictures. It is style for style's sake: a symptom of all that is wrong with Varda's picture. (p. 200)

[With] every shot, reality recedes a little further from Varda's grasp. The film begins and ends with a picnic (picnics or making love or both are François's characteristic ways of being happy), and the very first scene is shot to extract, at least to some extent, a drooling response…. [Behind] it all there is the music of Mozart, an embarrassment of riches that, despite effective moments, rather suggests that for this purpose Michel Legrand might have been much better. The kind of happiness that one associates with a composer like Mozart has something just a little cerebral about it, which brings us to the worst aspect of Agnès Varda's film: the feeling that it is a kind of intellectual slumming.

Just as a picturesque shot of a shower of wood shavings precedes the first glimpse of the carpenter at work and sums up his happiness there, so everything in the film is exactly what it seems at first glance. These are simple people, Varda seems to be saying, who experience only simple pleasures. But the only reality that any artist can present convincingly is the reality within himself. Varda, who has somehow suppressed her sense of humour sufficiently to take a fool like François seriously, is so intent on reconstructing the appearance of happiness that the spirit of it has eluded her completely…. If one admired Cléo de 5 à 7 less, one might have been prepared to like Le Bonheur more. (pp. 200-01)

Elizabeth Sussex, "Film Reviews: 'Le Bonheur'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 200-01.

Agnes Varda's study of marital and extramarital bliss, Le Bonheur, deserves a fighting chance for which it steadfastly refuses to fight. Instead of parading its virtues, which are many and varied, the film flaunts its defects, which are few but ostentatious. It is extremely easy pickings for people who delight in the destruction of fragile originality.

At first, Miss Varda seems to be trading in nothing but treacle. Her hero, a gentle young carpenter, spends a perfect Father's Day with his radiant wife and adorable children in the sunflowered sunshine of the French countryside. The scene, which might have been lifted bodily from "Picnic on the Grass," is a candid tribute to Renoir—both painter père and moviemaker fils. The family's happiness is transparently perfect, which makes it something of a bore for the onlookers, anxious to find a serpent or at least a dirty-minded cockroach in this dappled demi-Eden….

But Miss Varda has tricks up her unruffled sleeves. Her studied simplicity and cool detachment are only a stylized way of showing that a man's happiness is not necessarily the same as a woman's. When the carpenter extends his candor campaign [about an extramarital affair] to his wife, she takes the news with something short of equanimity by drowning her sorrows in a stream along with herself. At this point, the husband … casts off his own sorrow and sets up a new ménage with his children and his uncaged-animal mistress.

The directress may be saying that life goes on,...

(This entire section contains 779 words.)

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even though one-third of the triangle is unequal to the challenge of perfectly free love. She may also be saying, with irony pitched high as a dog whistle, that the damage such a man does to those who love him is incalculable, even though life may seem to go on despite it.

That she refuses to give pat answers to complex questions is all to the good. She takes a deceptively simple-seeming situation, peoples it with potentially fascinating characters and hires good actors to play the parts…. Then she pulls back, declining to give the audience any useful idea of what the hero is all about. The result is not the portrait of a pure spirit, or an impure spirit with pretensions to purity. It is the case history—curious, comely, refreshingly original but never really compelling—of a seeming psychopath who claims, eloquently but ambiguously, to be in love with two women, when his emotional responses are so shallow that he cannot love even one.

"Plants and Animals," in Newsweek (copyright 1966 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXVII, No. 24, June 13, 1966, p. 114.


Gordon Gow


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