Le Bonheur

The tone for Agnès Varda’s mid-1960s French New Wave film is set by a fascinating opening sequence, in which a family with two children walk towards the camera, out of focus. We can see one sunflower but she cuts away repeatedly to another – the first is wilting in the wind, is possibly on the cusp of dying and has seemingly been stripped of all its pollen; the other is vibrant, newly-flowered, and secure. It transpires that the flower is a metaphor for the relationship of a man (a young carpenter named François, played by Jean-Claude Drouot) and his wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot); they seem happy at first, but their roles as breadwinner and homemaker have been rigidly defined and we are given several clues about his restlessness and his wandering eye long before he eventually begins an affair with a woman he meets during a work trip to Paris. The film explores French male entitlement of the time and presents what today seems like a subtle call for female empowerment, though its impact on French society in the 1960s was considerably stronger and shouldn’t be underestimated. Varda’s clear messages arrive within a film that is incredibly stylish, from the general use of flowers and bright, contrasting colours to the fragmented, rough editing, with tell-tale shop signs that seem to be commenting on the action suddenly appearing. This is a superb, enigmatic film, and actually my favourite of the three Varda movies I’ve watched this year. (****½)