By Afra Nariman
Le Bonheur (1965)
Directed by: Agnès Varda
Stars: Jean-Claude Drouot, Marie-France Boyer, Claire Drouot
François, a young man living in suburban Paris appears to be living a happy life with his lovely wife, Therese, and their two adorable children. Although he is admittedly happy, he has an affair with a young mistress named Emilie, and shows no remorse for his philandering. He justifies being able to love both women at once, but the consequences of his actions become tragically and vividly apparent in the end.
What is happiness? Is it a state of mind, a thing you can attain, that you should chase? These are questions that humanity has grappled with for generations, and “happiness” is a concept in itself, that we have been desperately trying to understand for just as long. Due to the subject’s vague and fluid nature, studies of happiness usually zone in and focus on one specific “side of the story.” Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, or “Happiness,” explores the nature of happiness as a detrimental addiction, denouncing the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, this film can be understood in a couple of different ways. Some may say that it glorifies, even romanticizes infidelity, but the ending of the film supports the opposite. By showing us that even though having a romance with two people may feel good, and add to your “happiness,” especially if the two people know about it and are “seemingly” okay with it; in the end, it will only cause suffering that will be inflicted upon yourself and those around you — more on this later in this review.
Le Bonheur begins by showing François, Theresa and their two kids living an almost-utopian existence together. They are out in the woods, on Father’s Day, surrounded by nature, living in the overwhelming, but perfect bliss of early-family life. One of the more endearing elements of the film is apparent from the start as well: their two adorable little children, highlighted by their daughter who is a personality and has many moments of hilarious dialogue throughout the film that will just leave you smiling and laughing. Another aspect of the film that is highlighted from the very beginning to the very end, is the film’s use of color and nature; from the many colorful flowers, to the choice of clothing for the characters. Happiness, represented in this film by the blossoming life of a sunflower, radiates through every aspect of the film.
As the film progresses, we only become more and more aware of François’ perfectly happy life. At home, he enjoys a peaceful, ideal family life. Theresa is beautiful, kind, gentle, loving and fun. He loves her. His kids, as I said, are adorable, they don’t cause any stress or problems for their parents. François has fun at work, he enjoys the company of the people he works with. He is living a very easy-going lifestyle. Everything about his life seems to be what anybody and everybody would want at that point in their life. Admittedly, it is everything he could wish for as well.
In most films that portray a story of infidelity, something goes wrong at home to “inspire” the disloyal, immoral act. What’s different about Le Bonheur is that François couldn’t be happier with his home-life. This is why, when he has the affair, without the expectation for unhappiness as the motivating factor being met, the audience is left to interpret.
François doesn’t go looking for an affair. He meets Èmilie relatively by chance. It isn’t long until their cordial flirting transforms into a budding romance. They find more excuses to see each other, they quickly reveal their love that they feel for each other, and before we know it, they are wholly “committed” in their love for one another. Following their first kiss, François expresses his joy:
He is also extremely honest about his family life and his unaltered love for Theresa. He explains to Èmelie that he’s very happy at home, and that he loves his wife, clarifying that she hasn’t become a “habit.” He goes on to add;
“And with the kids, every day brings surprises.”
Although he expresses his unwavering content with his family-life, he claims to Èmelie that he loves her too. François looks past his obvious immorality, his manipulation of love, by justifying his actions with the assertion that he truly loves both. He holds the belief that happiness adds to happiness. For him, his happiness with and love for Theresa is not diminished by his newfound, and very real love for Èmelie, and vice-versa. This is where we, the viewers, are asked to begin pondering the nature of love and loyalty. Can you really love two people at once? Where/how does happiness come into the mix?
During his one-month affair with Èmelie, François never showed any loss of interest with his family at home. One day, the family decides to head to the woods, to enjoy another day walking in nature, napping under trees and picking flowers — like the day displayed in the film’s opening. While there, Theresa makes an observation to François, pointing out that he always seems happy these days, emphasizing that it’s more than usual. He goes on to explain his theory that happiness adds to happiness. After some hesitation, he reveals the truth about Èmelie to Theresa. She surprisingly seems to take the news quite well. After explaining that his love for her and the kids has not wavered one bit, and that he has every intent to continue loving her and living at home with her, it feels as if the subject is brushed aside. If the film were to end here, yes, you could say that this movie romanticizes and advocates for the potential bliss of infidelity — but it does not end here, and so it does not do those things in favor of infidelity.
What happens following their resolving conversation is an unbelievably heartbreaking ending that changes the entire course of the film’s ultimate message. Theresa, without showing the true pain that François caused her, secretly goes off and seemingly takes her own life by drowning in the lake. The moment in which François finds her, soaking wet and lacking any sign of life, the romantic music that had been pulsing throughout the entire film is but a distant memory, as we watch François realize what he has done, with deafening silence overtaking the background of the scene. The film ends slightly later. Èmelie begins to practically take Theresa’s place in the family. The film ends with the newly formed family spending a day in the woods, just as the film begun — only now, Theresa’s life has been lost, two children will grow up without their mother, and François will now live with what has happened because of his addictive pursuit of happiness.
The film explores the nature of happiness. Many people, like François chase happiness like it is something that is unlimited — and they do so selfishly. François, without regard for how his actions would affect Theresa’s level of happiness, tried to accumulate an unlimited amount of happiness for himself. He justified his actions and theorized that happiness can only add to happiness. This film shows us the age-old reality that chasing more, desiring more, when you already are happy, when you already have enough, will only lead to suffering and pain for yourself and those around you.
The film also shows us that there is no perfect relationship. If there was, it wouldn’t be possible to conceptualize that truly loving two people is even remotely possible. Love, by nature, is personal, it is intimate. When you love in accordance to the nature of the abstraction itself, it does not leave room for more, or another. Unfortunately, true love is more rare than we would like to admit. About 50% or more of marriages, for example, do not work out, either due to uncontrollable differences, lack of chemistry, dwindling love, or just pure infidelity. This film shows us that even if you’re happy, sometimes it isn’t enough to keep you loyal to that love. Human nature will often lead to inexcusable immoral acts, such as was the case with François and his selfish desire for more happiness.
Unlike most films that depict stories of infidelity, that are rather predictable both in the story’s progression and its intended message, this film allows for interpretation by the viewer. As I’ve said, because most of the film romanticizes François’ experience of infidelity, and even advocates at times for the possibility of loving more than one person; some people will use their permission of interpretation to conclude that the film glorifies infidelity, but the opposite is evidently true. Theresa’s untimely death could be interpreted as an accident, not a suicide. Admittedly, she had just expressed her acceptance of François’ disloyal actions — but it is highly unlikely that her death was caused by anything other than François’ recent confession. The film, in the end, illustrates that his unchecked pursuit of more happiness, and more love, led to the demise of a person who he loved and who mothered his two young children. It shows us how desire and a longing to maximize your own happiness, will only lead to suffering and pain. Additionally, the final scene is very revealing towards the overarching message of the film. François is doing the same thing as he had at the beginning of the film; spending a day in the woods with his kids — only now Theresa is gone, and Èmelie has taken her spot. His guilt and despair for Theresa’s loss has left him unhappier than he had ever been. After chasing happiness so aggressively, without regard for the happiness of others, he sacrificed what he had, and is now left living the same life, doing the same things, just minus another human being’s life. Through this ending, we realize that the only unselfish kind of happiness is true love, which involves only two people. With that kind of love, one person’s happiness in that love, only adds to the other’s; but in François’ case, he took away from Theresa’s happiness in favor of his own.
Le Boneur is a simple story of infidelity, yes — but it is also deeply insightful regarding the nature of love, happiness and honesty. It was only Varda’s third film, but she was able to create a unique story based on an age-old subject. The film’s use of nature, flowers, color and music creates the utopian-like mood throughout much of the film, before taking a turn in the end. With a relatively short runtime, Le Bonheur uses its time very efficiently, as it engages you deeply into the story and the characters, and leaves you silently in mourning, and in awe, in the end.