Happiness (le Bonheure) Agnes Varda (1965; Fr;) Jean-Claude Drouot, Claire Drouot, Marie-France Boyer
If music be the food of love….
I had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Varda’s film Happiness and got a surprise!
In Varda’s ‘Happiness’ the core family about whom the film hinges was played by lead Jean-Claude Drouot’s actual family: his wife and kids. As far as I can see this was the only acting role Claire Drouot ever played, but it is noticeable that amongst the cast there were a number of other non-actors. So Happiness is a strange and special film: a fictitious family narrative wrapped up within the folds of an actual family narrative. “Happiness’ is Varda’s savage satire/ parody on the family and the woman’s role in the happy family. But you’d think that with all those Drouot’s on set there must have been a lot of humour in the shoot, as reality and fiction kept bumping up against each other.
Varda’s movie is the slow play out of a script grounded in a comedic drama that is geared to deepest black humour.
The glory of Happiness is that it is pitched at the same emotionally dead level throughout its duration. As it is at the beginning so it is at the end, it’s Mozart all the way, though more of that later. One sometimes sees references in historical accounts to the ‘actors’ sleepwalking their way towards disaster. ‘Happiness’ is the sleepwalking but without any awakening after the disaster: there’s somnambulation before, somnambulation after.
In the new consumerist wonderland everyone walks on air with nothing under their feet.
The key to Varda’s characterisation is not narcissism, but rather the oblivion that has overtaken and shapes the people in her movie. The setting is a modern working class suburb of new conveniently built domiciles. This location is detached from the old working class areas of Paris, with their communal solidarity and tradition of resistance. In this suburb the car the fridge the other appliances have taken over, everything is designed to make the living easy. Life has become disconnected. Varda’s characters are oblivious to the past oblivious to all the interconnecting threads, social political economic that make up the world that exists outside their dream existence. The dream existence comprises an ‘eternal now’ which is the space time metric in which Varda has chosen to film. As the social and communal have collapsed the family is the source of identity and life revolves around satisfying individual needs in particular those of dominant male individuals.
At one point Francois, Varda’s protagonist defines ‘Happiness’. He says:
“Happiness is submission to the natural order.”
Who’s natural order? The natural order of Francois.
Varda’s is the feminist perspective. The key to the films cinematography is the manner in which Francois is observed. The nature of observation of his actions reactions his off guard moments could only stem from a female sensibility. In this cinematic scrutiny of the male there in nothing hostile. Indeed any hostility or anything unreasonable or unpleasant in relation to Francois’ actions or words would undermine Varda’s key proposition: that it is definitions of women’s ‘normality’ and the cultural expectations of feminine passivity, that drive the presumptions underlying male attitudes to women. These male states of mind when interacting with women are the key factors supressing women’s ability to control their own development.
The ingenuity of Varda’s script is realised in that there is no climax (sic) proper. There is only anti-climax. When Therese drowns herself on discovering Francois is also in love with Emilie (whom he describes as: “…the apple tree outside the orchard.”). But it is not the climax of the film; there is no climax there is only anti-climax as life continues as normal for Francois in his bubble of ‘love’ and ‘happiness’. Emilie moves seamlessly into his life to take over Therese’s place. A body for a body; a love for a love; a mother for a mother. As Francois says: “Happiness works by addition.” The apple tree moves into the orchard, and Francois is happy. A happiness dependent on the malleability of the woman in the world of the man.
Le Bonheure is wondrously shot. Cleverly set up camera pans, intercut signage and subversive shots, and use of colour screens as interstitial chapter cards. But it Varda’s use of music that is stunning and unforgettable. Varda opens ‘Happiness’ with an idyllic pic-nic sequence as the François family pic-nic and relax in the woods. Laid over the picture is Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major.
Varda has understood this piece of music as synonomous with grace, happiness, and escape. It is almost impossible to listen to this music without experiencing a direct physiological effect coursing through the body, transposing one’s life away from the troubles of this world (written just two months before his death it is Mozart’s last completed major work). In one sense it is the ultimate Bourgeois antidote to the problems of life, carrying the listener off their feet into a parallel trouble free domain. Varda’s use of this music is brutal. As a dominant piece of the West’s audio cultural furniture Varda has aligned this music with the same traditional forces holding women in their place. Varda unhinges the Mozart Concerto from the high firmament of music and casts it down into Dante’s third ring of Hell. Her response in ‘Le Bonheure’ is to relentlessly exploit the Concerto as a destructive force, introducing it over and over again on the sound track, cueing it at unforgiving volume whenever Francois lifts his head. The Concerto is a defining presence in the movie. It directs and shapes the audience’s response to the development of the scenario. Repeated time and again, the familiar beloved passages, the rising chord sequences of the music are deranging and inverted in affect. This so familiar music instead of affirming mocks parodies haunts and taunts the state of mind represented and exemplified by: happiness.
Final word: Varda has worked with her cast, both amateur and professional to draw out ensemble acting style completely at one with her theme. The acting is monopaced, monosybilic and self effacing. Totally at one with the script.