Sunday, June 10, 2012

Some French People Making Very Bad Decisions: Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur

*This post discusses major plot details of Agnès Varda's Le Bonheur and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors*

Frequently we find that so-called revolutionary movements—be they political, artistic, or otherwise—are very good at revolutionizing in one domain while remaining stubbornly reactionary in others.  For example, the Chinese and Cuban communists were (at least nominally) progressive when it came to women’s rights.  But as for gay rights, well, parish the thought.  Apparently anal sex was a bourgeois vice (which is reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s take on homosexuality; he believes it to be a British colonial import, non-existent in pre-colonial Zimbabwe).  Or let’s look at America’s Beat Movement: pioneers when it came to gay issues, almost hopelessly reactionary in their treatment of women (William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake).  There was a similar tendency amongst the New Left in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s; a “liberated” couple would get home from a busy day of subversion and the husband would plop down on the couch while the wife was expected to attend to the cooking and the housekeeping.  John Lennon, in his 1970 song “Power to the People,” had ample reason to say, “I’ve got to ask you, comrade and brother, how do you treat your own woman back?”

Did the French New Wave—a cinematic revolutionary movement—have a woman problem? (Christ, look what I sound like: “does The Daily Show have a woman problem?”) The depiction of women in New Wave films varied from filmmaker to filmmaker (Godard famously said that all you needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun; interpret that how you will), but I think the bigger issue is that almost all these filmmakers happened to be men; I say almost, because there is the wonderful exception of Agnès Varda (Agnès, pronounced Awn-Yes!).

I suppose there’s also the question of whether or not Agnès Varda was a New Waver.  What did it take to be “in” the French New Wave?  Did you have to write for Cahiers du Cinéma (like Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette, whom I list because they’re the five I think are incontestably New Wavers)? Did you have to release your first film circa-1960? Because Varda’s first film, Le Pointe Courte, came out in 1955?  But Rohmer’s first feature-length film, La Collectioneuse, didn’t come out until 1967, and he’s definitely New Wave, so being early to the game should hardly disqualify Varda.  Is Chris Marker New Wave? What about Louis Malle?  Hell, I don’t have an objective answer to any of this.  But for our purposes here, let’s say Varda is a New Wave filmmaker; I see no reason why she shouldn’t be.

I say all this by way of introducing the Varda film I’ve just seen, 1965’s Le Bonheur, a candy-colored story about a happy man and his happy wife and their two happy children, and the man’s happy pursuit of an affair with another woman, which he doesn’t think will present a problem at all.

Le Bonheur, which could just as easily have been called Un Homme Marié, is one of the most “color-coordinated” movies I’ve ever seen, with swaths of monochromatic space, reminiscent of Raoul Coutard’s camerawork on a number of Godard films, but especially on Made in USA.  Le Bonheur has a sequence in which the camera fragments and isolates different sections of the lovers’ post-coital bodies, almost exactly like the corresponding sequence in Godard’s Une Femme Mariée. 
Abstracted eye and hands in Le Bonheur
An eye and part of a face in Une Femme Mariée.
In many ways, Le Bonheur is the type of film Godard would have made if he wanted to make something really and uncharacteristically cheerful.  Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t made movies with cheerful elements (A Woman is a Woman is probably his lightest film), but even a generally whimsical movie like Band of Outsiders has looming over it the very real threats of violence and exploitation.  Le Bonheur is cheerful right up until about the one hour mark, when the genius husband decides to tell his wife about his affair; the affair makes him very happy, so he assumes she’ll be happy for him.  Shortly thereafter, she commits suicide, and the husband kind of misses her, but he still has the mistress, and he rapidly installs her in his wife’s place.

The movie poses two major question, one of them broad and universal, and the other more specific.  The first question: Is it morally acceptable for a person to be really, really happy?  François, the husband, seems to think it is; but François doesn’t seem particularly bright, and a really vigorous sense of morality must surely involve imagination?  But that’s not true, there are plenty of evil, moralistic prudes who are commonly thought to have little in the way of imagination, and the cliché would restrict their sex lives to the missionary position, at night, with the lights out, within the confines of a monogamous, legally (and almost certainly religiously) sanctioned marriage.  So I’m not quite sure on the question of morality and imagination, so I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about it; but at least, in François’s case, his lack of imagination—he never asks himself, “Hm, you know, I wonder if telling my wife about how happy I am fucking another woman just might upset her?”—seems to contribute to his moral complacency.

The other question—the more specific question—ties in with what we’ve just been discussing: Can a man carry on living his life after killing a woman? (And I’m pretty sure François can be said to have killed his wife).  I ask the question specifically of men killing women, because the other cinematic example I have in mind is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Martin Landau’s character, Judah, a respected ophthalmologist and a pillar of the community (shades of Ibsen), arranges to have his mistress (Angelica Huston) murdered when she threatens to expose their relationship.  The film details Judah’s subsequent quest to come to terms with what he’s done and to carry on living.  At the beginning of the movie, we see Judah as a rational, irreligious man (or at least, that’s how I suspect he sees himself), but his moral quandary becomes entangled with the ethical imperatives of the Jewish faith into which he was born.  He eventually reaches the conclusion—and as an atheist myself, I find this rather troublesome—that as long as nobody knows what he did, and there certainly is no God to inflict punishment on him, then there’s no reason why he can’t just carry on with his life and forget the incident, which will naturally fade into the background of his unconscious with the passage of time.
Now, what we have here with Judah is not, I think, primarily a problem of a lack of religious convictions, but rather a lack of moral convictions.  I have no difficulty in making this distinction, although apparently Judah does.  For my own purposes, I don’t need a God to tell me that killing people is wrong.  Were I to kill a person, I would not be able to live with myself, and God would have nothing to do with it.

In Le Bonheur, religion never comes into play (it’s France, we can just assume that everyone is de facto godless, even if they would publically identify as Catholics), and even questions of morality are never explicitly raised.  When François meets his mistress, Emilie, he just slides into an affair with her, stating all the while that he still very much loves his wife and kids.  That doesn’t mean he can’t love Emilie.  Now he just has more love in his life, and what could be wrong with that?  You can tell that he never doubts himself while he carries out his affair.  The fact that his wife drowns herself so swiftly after his ill-advised revelation to her would seem to indicate a profound lack of understanding on his part about his wife’s personality and perhaps about other people in general (just after her body is recovered, we see a few flashes of an image of François’s wife trying to grab hold of a tree branch to extricate herself; perhaps François genuinely doesn’t think she killed herself; perhaps he really believes that his wife’s death was an accident).  But anyway, the answer to our question—can a man go on living after killing a woman—is, in François’s case, yes, yes he can, and with very little difficulty.  In a matter of just a few months, he already has his mistress dropping his kids of at school; and she’s happy, and the kids are happy, and François is happy, and that’s how the movie ends.
Picture postcard perfect family; but apparently the woman on the right is replaceable.

It’s a remarkably unsettling movie, in retrospect.  Because when you’re watching it for the first time, the vast majority of the film is just cheerful and mellow.  The stakes seems very low.  It’s just a happy man and wife and their kids and their friends and their work, and everything is fine, and everything is colorful, and the Mozart score is sprightly and pleasant.  And then suddenly there’s a suicide.  This didn’t seem like the kind of movie where a person would commit suicide, but there it, it’s undeniable.  And yet, post-suicide, the tone of the movie remains the same, the colors are still colorful, the Mozart still pleasant, and François still happy.  And that’s just downright sinister.

But how wonderfully perverse!  Because before the suicide, I remember thinking to myself, “This Agnès Varda, she’s a New Waver, is she not?  But this is all so cheerful, it’s almost saccharine!  How did this movie come to be made?” But the catastrophe and the even more fucked up response tell us not to worry, we are in confident, supremely subversive hands.

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