Le Bonheur (Happiness) (1965): Agnes Varda’s Tale of Unusually “Happy” Romantic Triangle and its Consequences

French Wave director Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (Happiness) is considered to be one of her most personal and most impressive films.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The movie world premiered at the 15th Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Jury Grand Prix.

Le Bonheur
Le Bonheur (1965 film).jpg

Theatrical release poster

François, a handsome young joiner working for his uncle, lives a comfortable and happy life married to his wife Thérèse (a dressmaker), with whom he has two delightful children, Pierrot and Gisou. The family love outings to the woods in the country.

Although finding abundant happiness in his life and indisputably loving his wife and children, François falls for Émilie, an attractive single woman working in the post office, looks very much like Thérèse. He does not lie to Émilie about his happiness with his wife and children, and she she accepts his random visits to her flat, when he chooses. The affair is conducted on his terms.

Picnicking in the woods one weekend, Thérèse asks François why he seems so happy of late. He explains that his happiness has been increased after meeting another woman, Émilie, and she seems to accept the new arrangement.

Earlier, Francois tells Emilie that he enjoys having regular sex with both women, and that the only difference is that his wife is “calmer” and he’s the initiator, whereas Emilie is more spontaneous and wilder, “like a free animal.”

Putting the children to sleep in a tent, Thérèse encourages François to make love to her. He falls asleep and, waking up later, he realizes that Thérèse is gone. Searching desperately for her, he finds her body retrieved from the lake.

After a spell in the country, where relatives are looking after the children, François returns to work and looks up Émilie. Soon she is living in his house, looking after him and the children.

The family, all very happy together, continue the same routines, with weekend picnics in the country. Francois has once again found abundant happiness in his life, loving his new wife and children.  Would his new “happiness” last with one woman, or is he likley to carry on with another femme?

Unusual, particularly in the context of 1960s mores in which it was made, the film depicts a triangle in which, on the surface, all parties seem “happy” and well-adjusted to a status quo that is unconventional.  The main beneficiary is, of course, the male at the center, who deludes himself that he can please and love both women at no cost and no price to anyone.

Fluidly shot, Le Bonheur gain a considerable measure of natural spontaneity from the casting: François’ wife and children are played by Jean-Claude Drouot’s real-life family.

Varda raises the questions of whether it is possible to love two women at the same time, and whether a man should have the privileged position of challenging the prevalent norm of monogamous marriage. While watching the film from today’s perspective, you wonder how Francois would have reacted if it was Emilie who would have brought another man into the marriage,

lf the movie is straightforward and linear in its story-telling, it is emotionally radical and devastating in its ambiguous ending, and in its subtext, which comments on notions of love, chaos, and fate.

Some critics see it as an excoriating feminist diatribe, a devastatingly quiet horror film, unfolding against blue skies and wrapped up in sunflowers.

Cast
Jean-Claude Drouot as François
Claire Drouot as Thérèse
Olivier Drouot as Pierrot
Sandrine Drouot as Gisou
Marie-France Boyer as Émilie Savignard

Credits:

Directed, written by Agnès Varda
Produced by Mag Bodard
Music by Jean-Michel Defaye
Cinematography Claude Beausoleil, Jean Rabier
Edited by Janine Verneau
Distributed by Columbia

Release date: January 2, 1965

Running time: 80 minutes

Note:

TCM showed the movie on October 14, 2020 as part of their series, Women Make Film.

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