LE BONHEUR (1965): Agnes Varda’s exploration of marital “Happiness”

Le bonheur
Photo courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center

In the opening scene of Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, we are introduced to what appears to be a perfectly happy married couple and their children.  Despite Varda’s use of beautiful, bold colors and a score by Mozart, we eventually find out that this family is far from being happy or perfect.  We first meet Francois and Therese as they spend Father’s Day with their children having a picnic in the countryside.  A series of scenes follows where we see Francois working at his wood shop and Therese working at home as a seamstress as well as taking care of the children.  All seems normal until Francois meets Emilie, a receptionist at the post office.  Unbeknownst to Therese, the two quickly begin a love affair.  A month later while on another countryside picnic, Francois reveals the affair to Therese.  Tragically, Therese disappears while Francois is sleeping and drowns herself in the lake nearby their picnic.  After a few weeks of mourning Francois finds Emilie and convinces her to move in with him and the children.  Tragically, the film ends with a portrayal of Emilie as just an easy replacement for Therese.  The final shot underscores this as we see the family, once again on a countryside picnic with Emilie resembling Therese as the wife and mother.

The film is bursting with beautiful colors from the actors wardrobe to the large bouquets of flowers in certain scenes to the colorful dissolves that connect scene to scene.  I believe that Varda was intentionally using these bold warm colors in order to distract the audience from the dark subject matter of the plot.  One early scene in the film shows how Therese fits into the household.  We see Therese wearing a blue robe standing in front of a blue wall filling a vase with flowers.  Therese blends in with the wall so perfectly that she could almost be invisible.  As the film develops, especially when Francois gets closer with Emilie, we realize that Therese is in a way invisible.  She is there only to serve Francois and the children but not to be recognized by any of them.  When Francois first meets Emilie, she is at the post office working.  She is dressed in blue but behind the wooden desk and against the yellow walls there is no way she will blend in.  Varda clearly wanted Emilie to stand out as she flirted and smiled with Francois.  Later, after the couple have made love, they lay in bed talking.  Francois tells Emilie that although he loves Therese she is different than her. When comparing the two women he tells Emilie that his wife is like a “potted plant” and Emilie is like “an animal set free.”  This is a very harsh criticism of Therese and his marriage but Francois does not seem to care.  He truly believes that he can love both Therese and Emilie.

Therese and Emilie are portrayed to be the same in appearance but very different in substance. Therese is shown as the hardworking housewife.  She is always at home with the children. Sometimes we don’t even see Therese onscreen.  Varda shot scenes of Therese ironing, making bread, feeding the children but all of theses actions are just close-ups of Therese’s hands.  It tells the audience that she is not important only her hands that perform the domestic tasks for the husband and children.  Emilie however is portrayed with strength and independence.  We see her at work, which unlike Therese, is in a public space not at home.  We also see Emilie interacting with the public and helping customers at the post office.  The only time Therese gets to interact with the public at work is when a young woman, with a slight resemblance to both Therese and Emilie, asks her to make a wedding dress for her.  The woman specifically shows Therese the design of the dress from a popular magazine. This was Varda’s way of showing the impact popular magazines and advertising had on the housewife of the 1950’s and 60’s.  Advertising campaigns were always showing women in their ads not only performing domestic tasks, but looking happy while they did it.  Just like the magazine ads of the 50’s and 60’s this film is showing a warped sense of happiness. The only difference is that the film was intentionally distorting the idea of happiness.  Varda’s feminist message in this film was to say that domestic life was not a road to happiness for women. She was trying to show how women are expected to get married, have children, and then give up their lives to serve their families.  

The title of the film Le Bonhuer means Happiness but who in the film is actually happy?  The answer is Francois.  Francois has an extramarital affair and then when he tells Therese about it he tries to convince her that it is not a problem for their marriage.  He even has the audacity to tell Therese that the affair has made him a better husband and father.  The only time Francois shows any hint of unhappiness is when Therese commits suicide and at the funeral. Right after the funeral he immediately reconnects with Emilie.  The film ends with Emilie replacing Therese and being Francois housewife and although she smiles we as an audience can’t help but think that she may end up facing the same problem Therese did.  Another irony in the film is what becomes of Emilie at the end.  We have already seen Emilie as an independent single woman with a job and her own apartment.  Quite a contrast to the domesticated Therese.  In the end, however, she tells Francois that she wants to move in with him and the children.  She even goes as far as saying that his happiness is her happiness.  This is when Varda masterfully shows the transformation of Emilie by repeating several of the shots from earlier in the film of domestic chores performed by Therese.  This time they are performed by Emilie, smiling, and appearing happy in her new role.

One thought on “LE BONHEUR (1965): Agnes Varda’s exploration of marital “Happiness”

  1. Great write-up! Again, in light of reading this I want to see the movie again. I especially liked your description of Theresa blending into the wall

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s