Le Bonheur

Sunflowers, a field of hay, a Mozart quintet. In the distance, a well-heeled family approaches, the two young children flanked by their attentive parents all in matching summer tones. The scene is impossibly idyllic. And yet, another image, that of a single sunflower in full bloom, aggressively flickers into view, like interference from an unwanted radio frequency. What are we to make of this strange, beautiful interruption, erratically appearing and disappearing from view? It is too early to tell, but immediately an external element has been introduced, something wild and unstable, beyond the singular unity and domestic predictability of the picture-perfect family. Reflecting on the conception of her film years later, Varda said: “I imagined a summer peach with its perfect colors, and inside, there is a worm.”

Released in 1965 – as the post-war women’s movement gathered pace across France – Varda’s Le Bonheur resists easy definition. Is it a biting satire on De Gaulle-esque family values and the nuclear family, a visionary evocation of polyamorous love, a cautionary tale of the devastating effects of patriarchy? François and Thérèse’s world is a suburban utopia: their children are the picture of good health, they nap when they’re told to and never cry; they have good friends and a supportive family; their home is a perfect example of 60s-domestic-messy-but-charming; and wherever they walk, cow parsley and Mexican fleabane seem to magically spring up from the earth. Indeed, even when François begins a secret affair with a post office-worker – of strikingly similar looks to his wife – things remain in perfect equilibrium. They are happier than ever, they tell each other. “Happiness works by addition,” says François. It is the best world of all possible worlds. Mozart’s clarinets play on.

Or rather, this is how it seems to François. Increasingly we realise the film’s universe is an extension of his, where his actions remain unquestioned, infidelity an irrelevant detail in a larger – more “modern” – philosophy. François sees the world in surfaces, in simple arithmetic – the world is as it appears to be. So as Mozart’s sunny quintet continues to loop, its repetitive theme takes on a maddening intransigence – as if reasserting itself day after day, unchanged and unsullied, it might conceal the slowly rotting core of François’ world. What is happiness anyway, if not just a story we tell ourselves, a melody to perfect?

 

When François eventually tells Thérèse about his affair, he frames it as something aspirational, utopian even: “It’s simple,” he tells her. “You and I and the kids, we’re like an apple orchard, a square field. Then I notice an apple tree that grows outside the field and blooms with us. More flowers, more apples. It adds up. Do you understand?” Taken on its own, François’ impassioned pitch might win mansplain-of-the-year, a Don Juan impulse disguised as progressive politics. Varda seems to be saying yes it is that, but also, no, wait. What about the bucolic scenery? What about Thérèse, who, at first, seems elated by it? It’s the 60s, free love and all that right? Could this be one solution to an increasingly unappetising notion of family? If Varda holds us in a state of intellectual uncertainty, it is only a fleeting gesture, a sleight of hand. The film’s brutal, harrowing climax – one of the film’s rare, silent moments – suggests where she eventually lands: just because things seem fine, it doesn’t mean that they are.

In the film’s denouement, Varda is no less merciful. In an eerie reversal of the opening scene, we are led out via the door we came in. Any peeling plaster has been covered with a fresh, but caustic, lick of paint: summer has lazed into autumn; a bed of fallen leaves has covered any last traces of sunflower petals; a dark fugue for strings has slyly replaced Mozart’s quintet. Everything is different, and just the same. The worm inside the fruit is finally laid bare.

 

 

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