Agnès Varda

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Max Kozloff

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After perhaps some initial confusion, a viewer might most profitably view Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur as a pastoral, in the old, even Renaissance sense of the word. Imbued with a simple gravity, nymph and shepherd enact a gracious courtship (here a self-refreshing marriage), which is yet miraculously attuned with nature. It is a genre convention as little current today as the implied vanity and death theme in Varda's earlier Cléo de 5 à 7. But it has the advantage of suspending the apparent implausibility of the wife's suicide in a mythic mold that would be totally unexplained in the usual narrative, or psychological context. Set in a modern Paris suburb, replete with high-rise housing projects, the picture quite magically evokes an ancient pantheism, a vegetable efflorescence, alien to tragedy. More than that, it is a celebration of all sensory pleasure, unaffected in what it depicts, yet subtle and willful in how it depicts it.

Part of the fascination here emerges in an improvised artifice that takes a bit of catching on for its comprehension. Unlike The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by her husband Jacques Demy, Varda's Le Bonheur does not announce itself as anything so hyper-stylized as operetta. The tale of a young carpenter, his wife, and the post-office girl he meets and loves—without surcease of desire or affection for the one, or guilt with the other—spins out in homely fragments. But their naturalism dissipates in the unfailing sweetness of the people involved. And though the animal bliss which is the picture's theme is leavened by domestic chores and workshop labors, none of them are connectable with care. More equivocally, while the characters often behave in accord with their ordinary stations in life—by most standards they're a rather dull lot—they sometimes unwittingly slip into a richer and more humane consciousness, as in the tersely poetic style of the husband. But this is not an oversight or pretension of the director. In her view, naiveté of utterance does not conflict with fineness of perception or capacity of response: a fact which complicates the film rather than its characters. The consistency which she imposes upon them is that of a fictional grace, running intermittently parallel rather than coincident with social morality.

That is why, when the husband misguidedly informs his wife of his affair (he can't stand lying), it is through a transcendant uxoriousness that he does so. Not being quite up to this, the wife drowns herself. That he is tremendously saddened, but neither crushed, nor prevented by his responsibility for her death from carrying on life with his mistress shortly thereafter, has raised many eyebrows. The torment he may have experienced between these two changes in his life is largely effaced. But this is surely to underline an earthly cycle of which one catches scattered glimpses; the beginning and ending of the film, the picnic in summer and autumn, delicately reiterate it. To obey that cycle which appears here almost in sonata form, is to exist considerably above, and yet below what are considered the normal claims of togetherness.

Far more insistently than the "plot," does the form of the film embody this issue. There is a Saturday night dance scene, for instance, which, in its movements, easily and inevitably enacts the psychological ritual of the pastoral. The camera oscillates from left to right of a dividing tree, and back again, complicating its lateral view of couples constantly changing partners (especially the husband, with wife and mistress) by regular shifts from near to far focus. Such a pan shot acts, not so much to convey the rhythms and gestures of...

(This entire section contains 1579 words.)

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bodies, as it does a larger dance of life. With a remarkable liquidity and impartiality, the lens switches depth of field and less noticeably, light and dark. Though obviously drawing attention to itself, it is an effect far more musical than gratuitous. One sees a charming spatial pingpong, punctuated by the bouncing motions of dancers, and the in-and-out of optical definition: all very gay, and impersonal. (pp. 35-6)

Between certain shots … Varda will flood the screen with a quick, unitary color chord that fades a trifle slowly at the dissolve. Such is the scarlet introduction to a group of shots, spotted with russets, and ending with a ruddy sunset. Immediately afterwards, a May green rinses out the red, and acts as a prelude for a new sequence. It is an explosion, then gradual fading or decaying of color, reminiscent of Bonnard…. Then too, there are various color accents made by passing trucks, or someone's sweater, that hover, or so it seems, between the composed and accidental. Never do they blanch a scene with obvious symbolism, as in Antonioni's Red Desert, or shamelessly decorate it, as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. With Varda, color can be used expressively, as in the contrast between the comfortable warm tones in the love scenes of husband and wife, and the cool, whiter ones of those of the husband and his mistress. And the many floral bouquets that flounce through countless shots are a kind of leitmotiv of the whole picture. But as a rule, color is a more or less tangible rhythmic element that inflects people's lives, sometimes by nothing more than variously delightful flesh-tinting patterns. (p. 36)

[In Le Bonheur there] are unexpected, almost subliminal jumps in continuity that convey snippets of a character's state of mind. A flirtatious young woman suddenly images herself playfully entwined with the man whose invitation for a stroll she has just accepted. Crouched over the drowned body of his wife, the husband pathetically "sees" her white arm going underwater. These touches are all the more poignant because seemingly involuntary. There has occurred a switch from external recording to a picturing of feeling—without characterization, or even severe dislocation. And this device is not a flashback so much as it is a fantasy inset, related to the differentiated consciousness pioneered more radically by Resnais in Marienbad and Muriel. Varda gives us little footnotes, or rather hypotheses about future and past—all the more radiant because frustratingly brief.

Yet here she will not go so far as her confrères in providing whole alternate constructions to an increasingly fragmented line. With Godard or Resnais, both quite influential on Varda in the recent past, inversion and false parallelism of incidents are not merely tokens of conceptual stress, but confessions of ambivalence that have found their way towards a quite widespread recreation of film form. Character and memory, as a result, precipitate into an opaque, troubling new compound. In the mixing of tenses, from which their characters suffer, history becomes an organism so confused as to weight down emotion and stifle communication. By contrast, the people in Le Bonheur experience no crisis of identification whatsoever, but exist just as characteristically outside history. It is an eirenic vision Varda purveys, in which forgetfulness merges with regeneration. By siphoning off conflict into her lyric envelope, she is not so much interested in eliciting one's sympathy, as she is in offering a provisional resolution to the psychological questions raised earlier in the cinema around her. For if these characters feel gratification, and find happiness, it is largely in the context of a fairy tale. It is significant that she owes a debt to Truffaut here, especially the Truffaut who, in the warmth of his sensuous responses, was carrying on a tradition initiated by Jean Renoir…. Less earthy than Renoir, Varda with her rococo symmetries is also more disconcerting. In place of an older humanism, she gives a mechanistic view, undecoded, yet lovely. (pp. 36-7)

Max Kozloff, "Film Reviews: 'Le Bonheur'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1966 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XX, No. 2, Winter, 1966–67, pp. 35-7.

[At first glance Agnès Varda's work and her husband's, Jacques Demy,] seem totally different. While he conjures up pastel never-never lands, she broods over such weighty matters as morality, predestination and the nature of reality. But husband and wife do have in common two uncommon traits: the ability to reduce everything to playground platitudes and a stylistic pomposity that serves only to accent the vacuity of their scripts. In Les Créatures … [Varda] has fashioned a kind of portrait of the artist in finger paints, a childish and often embarrassing attempt to render life as the ultimate fiction.

The plot is the sort of thing that gives science fiction a bad name. A writer … and his mute wife … live in an abandoned fort on the coast of Brittany. She is pregnant; he is trying to write…. The writer's story becomes the film's own plot; illusion and reality are inextricably and ever so modishly mixed. With the bad guy getting killed, the baby getting born, and the wife regaining her voice, there is even a happy ending….

Madame Demy has an unerring instinct for the stylishly avant-garde. She photographed Les Créatures as if it were a Vogue layout, and edited it elliptically. She even tinted the fantasy scenes to avoid confusion: red for those influenced by the mad engineer at his game board, a benign pink for the writer-hero. The trouble is that she seems to take the hero's fantasy as seriously as he does. As in her other films (Cleo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur), she mistakes pulp for pith and winds up only with pretension.

"… And Hers," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1969), Vol. 93, No. 11, March 14, 1969, p. 99.


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