Saturday, August 13, 2011

#420: Le Bonheur

(Agnés Varda, 1965)

I think I love Agnés Varda and Le Bonheur is a great example of why. Despite the sad scarcity of female directors relative to the general population (is there any other art that is so one-sided gender-wise?) there is an enormous range of sensibilities within their ranks, from Mimi Leder and Kathryn Bigelow to Catherine Breillat and Jane Campion. While it should hardly be the responsibility of a female director - or any Western director who deviates from the typical white male identity - to "carry the torch" for their kind, the women who most remind me of what film is missing by tilting too far towards men are those that bring a specific female perspective to their work. I can't think of a single director who personifies the potential this perspective can provide better than Agnés Varda.

What is so remarkable about Le Bonheur is that the film does not present the feminine perspective in the traditional sense - by presenting a female protagonist in a uniquely female world - but instead provides a new take on a conventional male protagonist in a premise that is hardly new territory for male-dominated cinema. How many movies have been made about infidelity, specifically (though not exclusively) male infidelity? Ironically, many of those films took a moral stance that ultimately sunk the protagonist, while Varda's supposedly "feminine" take on the story is in some ways the masculine ideal - sharply satirized, of course, and sporting one "speed bump" along the way, minor or major depending on whom you ask. The final sequence (spoiler, of course) of Francois's replacement for his wife caring for his children while she remains almost entirely off camera, devoid of individuality - or even being - is one of the most savagely funny takes on gender dynamics I can think of in film.

I recognize that other people see a second side to Le Bonheur, one that isn't satirical and might even condone Francois's actions. I simply don't see it within the film, and tend to think this uncertainty is because Varda chooses to avoid confrontation, even placing Therese's death offscreen - Fat Girl, this is not. Without that big moment where Francois gets his comeuppance - and particularly because Varda scrubs her film clean of any dirt - Le Bonheur seems like a commercial for sunflowers more than it does a biting look at domestic gender dynamics. We're looking at Francois through his fantasy lens where all of his rationalities make sense, all of his needs are satisfied, and every day is 70 degrees and sunny. Welcome to paradise, Francois, pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.

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