Le bonheur? Votre méfiance est tout à fait compréhensible!

October 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

I recently had the momentous experience of watching two Agnes Varda films; two of the most popular, it seems, of her earlier films: Cleo de 5 a 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) and Le bonheur (Happiness). Not being well versed in film techniques or film criticism, I can’t really talk intelligently about what I liked so much in Cleo. I can say that what I found so visually-sumptuous was the way in which people and places were framed in the film; it made me feel like I was watching an extension of a moving photograph. I’ve now learned that Varda did indeed start out as a photographer. It’s probably that photographic sensibility that suffuses her films with outstanding, memorable images, such as one particular scene that shows Cleo on an empty cobblestone street save for one tiny toddler in the corner playing with a toy piano. Weeks later it still comes vividly to mind when I think of the film.

Similarly, Le bonheur begins with a strong image – a shot of sunflowers, to be precise. The colours are lucid and bright and quite painful in its piercing intensity. It’s a photographic shot that is somewhat of an assault to the visual sense, the exuberance of colour somehow prefiguring the excess of “happiness” to come. I avoided reading any particular reviews of the film before I saw it, but within the brutal excess of those colours one can already feel a sense of foreboding about the movie’s end. The scene that open the film depicts idyllic family togetherness against a background of nature at its most passive, all well-manicured parks and trimmed shrubs. This scene is an early indication of carefully-constructed artifice – the myth of happiness in action through ridiculously cheery, bucolic images.

I apologise if this post is a little… weird. Le bonheur is sneaky and sly in how it creeps up on you with its understated destruction. Watching it leaves one feeling fragmented. I had no idea that the title was ironic (but what else could it have been but ironic, really?), even if I was nervous about watching it precisely because of the title – the concept of happiness makes me anxious and slightly terrified. Having watched it, what appears to make me a devout Varda fan from this moment on was the way the movie itself seems to dance around the issue of Happiness in movements both delicate and assured. Le bonheur seems to me to be about three things: the tyranny of happiness, the tyranny of marriage, and the biggest Terror of all, the tyranny of a “happy marriage”. I say tyranny, of course, because people are generally compelled to have to want one of those three things, or better yet, all three.

As exemplified in the male lead, Francois, happiness is a self-blinding form of selfishness when pursued as an end in and of itself. We don’t really discover much about Francois’ ambitions or thoughts and hopes for himself – but we do know he wants to be happy, and that a little bit of happiness is never enough. One always wants more. “Happiness works by addition,” he tells his mistress Emilie. This seeming addiction to the feelings aroused by happiness is an ideal master for someone as unself-reflective as Francois. The contradictions of happiness are imbued within it, as we’re aware; the moment someone starts to think about his or her own happiness and begins to deconstruct it, of course, the experience of happiness is over.

The idea of the “tyranny” of marriage is perhaps simply a reflection of my own neuroses. People certainly seem to want to get married and stay married. But I think Le bonheur manages to show, precisely because it focuses on the “good times”, the idea of marriage is fundamentally an idea laden with terror. Banal terror, yes, behind shared moments in the bathroom and the supposed joy of child-raising, but still signifying the depths of unrecognisability that can slowly spread outward. How much do Francois and Therese really know of each other? It is a marriage that’s “happy” because their lives circulate upon the calm, cheery surface of normality. It’s when you start becoming curious about who your spouse really is that it all starts to crack around the edges. When Francois tells Therese of his affair, she realises that she was she has simply taken to be his heightened sense of joy has a more insidious layer to it, encased within well-meaning yet damning deception. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but the viewer sort of knows better. In marriage you have two fundamentally different people unknowable to themselves, much less to their spouse, coming together for what should technically be an eternity. There cannot be a charade from the start, or if there is one, it must then be maintained at all costs.

One of them is happier than the other

We don’t really know much about Therese, Francois’ wife, except from what Francois describes of her to Emilie. He mentions attributes that the viewer has already come to see about Therese: she is relentlessly positive, cheerful, calm, and eternally present. When she hears of Francois’ affair, she is disturbed and hurt –evident from her facial expressions – but she is willing to “love him more”, as Francois asks of her because he is that much happier now that he also loves Emilie. Francois subsequently receives her acknowledgement to do just that with absolute trust. You want to shake Francois and remind him to watch out for the surprise that Therese will inevitably spring upon him, just like he has upon her. Just because she tells you she’s happy with this does not mean anything, Francois! The bonds of marriage, precisely because of its essentially contractual nature – you pledge unwavering devotion to the other in the eyes of the law and/or religious law – requires this kind of self-immolation in various degrees. Isn’t that the fundamental value of marriage – that unlike a relationship, you just cannot walk away? You could, of course, and people do, but the rupture of a divorce in cataclysmic, even in our current very cynical, “postmodern” lives. The spectre of forever will always hang over both individuals, gimlet-eyed and unwavering.

Which brings us to the tyranny of the “happy marriage.” I say tyranny because no one really has any idea what the hell constitutes a happy marriage. This is precisely why I only trust those who are in unhappy marriages (and unhappy relationships). Are relationships and marriages ever meant to be “happy”? Like heartbreakingly foolish, over-eager dogs, we seem to be barking up the wrong tree the moment we start to imagine relationships within the context of happiness. Can people, such as we are, ever be “happy” whilst in them? If you’re going to make that connection with someone and sweat it out for the rest of your life, it is not for reasons of happiness.  Isn’t it evident that modern people do this – get married, have relationships – for the very basic fact of connection, which really does come at the expense of happiness. No matter how much you know someone, you’ll never know them, and this fundamental disconnect can only bring pain because the irrational impulses of love, after all, compels one to want what one can’t have, the  complete knowledge of the other. If this doesn’t work, we carry on replacing the former loved one with another, and another, and another…

Which is what enables Francois to continue being happy. Without delving deep, he coasts on the surface of love, knowing full well that one person can easily take the place of another if one doesn’t think too hard about the other person, but focuses instead on oneself. In fact, this leads me to think that unabashedly self-protecting and selfish individuals will probably have happy marriages more than any other personality type. I don’t mean selfish in the sense we’ve come to typically use the word – someone necessarily kind to oneself and mean to others – but simply a person who strives for self-interest above all. In this case, as Le bonheur shows, Therese was doomed from the start. Emilie may fare better – if what she told Francois about how she has learned to serve her own interests first in the wake of a ruined relationship is essentially true. In which case, this also means that Francois has truly found his “other” half in Emilie. It is a match made in mutual self-preserved happiness. Perhaps in 1965, when the film was released, it was easier for a man to be a Francois in a marriage. Emilie, a potential Francois, is still single when we meet her. I’m unsure how her story will pan out once she’s caught up in the bonds of traditional domesticity and marriage. Does she inevitably become a Therese?

This is not to say that I’m trying to make a case, via a very fragmented reading of Le bonheur, for why being single is better than being married. I don’t think either state is the better one. One can also be unhappy alone and single, yet find ways to assuage the unhappiness in purely self-serving ways without having to consider the other person – the spouse – who is always and necessarily there. There is that saying with which single people comfort themselves, the one that says that it’s better to be lonely and alone than be lonely with someone else. Or some such thing. I tend to believe this, but then again I am single, so don’t trust a word I say. However, what about being unhappy? Is it better to be unhappy alone or unhappy with someone else? Perhaps there is incalculable value in the latter. Perhaps Francois robbed Therese the chance of this by compelling her to accept his happiness so soon. She really plays no part in this newfound multiplication of happiness except as the cause of his original happiness upon which this new happiness takes root. Francois could not see – or could not bear to acknowledge – Therese’s unhappiness. It’s all so new, and it encroaches upon the myth of the happy marriage.Furthermore, there is that self of his he needs to preserve.

But what do I know of marriage? Only everything that I’ve observed from the outside, which is essentially nothing. I’ve no doubt that plenty of people will disagree with what I’ve said, especially since I disagree with what I said. I like to believe in the happy marriage and the amoeba-like relationship that keeps self-replicating its own joy – these beliefs, erroneous or not, keep me going. It’s clearly what kept Therese going too, until she died either by chance or by will. But let’s not get too dramatic. What we need, to take the edge off of the feelings brought about by Le bonheur, is to rewatch Bridget Jones’ Diary. Then, to lull ourselves into a stupor, Love, Actually will do the trick.

*The French in the title of this post is entirely due to some creative Googling. I apologise if what it actually says is “eat shit and die”; this is not what I want to convey to you.

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