Agnès Varda

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Gordon Gow

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[Agnès Varda's method in Le Bonheur] is the antithesis of the conventional scripted film: she has hoped that it will draw from its audience the kind of reactions she experiences herself when she looks at snapshots or at impressionist paintings: the ideas reside in the images, in the light and warmth and delicate shadows of summer, and later on in the maturity of autumn when sweaters worn by humans match the golden leaves but the idyll is modified by a chill fogging of the breath.

Happiness exists en famille at a picnic in the woods to celebrate Father's Day. The pictures have a gentle glow, and the careful planning of colour serves to remove us sufficiently from reality, into the small and personal world of a carpenter untouched by the social and political distractions of life around him. Placid at work amid his wood-shavings, weaving contentedly around trees in the square as he rides home on his bike, physically and emotionally fulfilled with his wife, he is not a man who must go searching for happiness. (pp. 30-1)

A minor tone-poem, [Le Bonheur is] about human nature and the seasons, at times almost somnolently quiet in its representation of happiness, isolated from the wider world: and in the long run about sadness as well. A brave try at making something fruitful of a wholly cinematic language; if it doesn't really work, that might be more a fault in our conditioning than in Agnès Varda's concept. It is the kind of thing that would be accepted, doubtless with cheers, as a ballet, but it intrudes a bit uncomfortably upon the hard-dying precepts of cinema as we know it.

It may be unfair to equate simplicity with carpenters, as well. One glances about for signs of deeper significance. When a television set functions unheeded in a room what are we to make of the fragment it is showing of Jean Renoir's Le Déjeuner sur l' Herbe?… [Should] we recall that the film of Renoir fils was a joke about the inadequacy of artificial insemination in the face of sexual humanity, and then see Le Bonheur as a lament for the natural urges which are inevitably undermined? Not a psychological study, Agnès Varda insists, striking again at the conditioned responses to anything resembling a triangle plot. Of course, it isn't a triangle: rather a prolongement of one man's happiness, which could have been resolved in several other ways, perhaps as a sophisticated jag in which the wife took a lover, or as a tear-jerker in which the children refused to accept the other woman. Agnès Varda plays it the hard way, allowing happiness to linger but in an altered form.

Her technique is intermittently provoking, but not displeasing, as she manipulates her colours with delicacy, influenced perhaps by her husband's [Les Parapluies de Cherbourg], matching clothes to settings and even, presumably, painting house fronts to fill the eye for a moment with one dominant hue. She fades her scenes not to black but to white or blue or red; yet nobody sings, although there is a deal of Mozart being played and somehow there is a hint of strain in this effort to show us that the story is not real but a heightened, and at the same time quietened, portrayal of nature and human nature….

Despite shortcomings, Le Bonheur is an essential film for anyone who believes that the cinema can speak a language of its own. (p. 31)

Gordon Gow, "The New Films: 'Le Bonheur'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1965; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 12, September, 1965, pp. 30-1.

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