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Le bonheur
Photo courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/LE-BONHEUR-etn7h6

EPISODE 2: LE BONHEUR (1965): Agnes Varda’s exploration of marital “Happiness”

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.

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EPISODE 1: THE WOMAN’S FILM (1971): A ‘Consciousness Raising Group” on Film

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-WOMANS-FILM-ete2dj

The 1960’s was a watershed moment in the world of filmmaking. The emergence

of “cinema-verite” style documentary coupled with the advancement in filmmaking

technology gave filmmakers more independence when it came to making films. Richard

Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker have become synonymous with this period but what most

people overlook is how this era and movement inspired and produced exceptional women filmmakers.

Due to widespread revolution against the Vietnam war many women in the United

States began turning to film as a way of voicing their anti-war message. With the advent

of new equipment it was much easier for any filmmaker to get their hands on Hollywood

level filmmaking tools. After having success making these anti-war films, women,

mostly feminists, then turned their cameras toward the Feminist movement and its

struggle for gender equality. The Woman’s Film, directed by Louise Alaimo and Judy

Smith and produced by San Francisco Newsreel was one of the first feminist

documentaries that was made by an all female production crew. The film uses interviews

and conversations from an extremely diverse group of all women describing their

struggle and dissatisfaction with living in a patriarchal society.

Shot in black and white, the film opens with an Agnes Varda type montage of

women doing domestic tasks. We see several close up shots of women’s hands washing

dishes, cleaning sinks, and pushing a vacuum cleaner. The rest of the film is a collection

of different groups of women telling stories about their own problems. Shot mostly in the

“talking head” style, the women rarely address the camera. Mostly they address each

other as all scenes are shot in a room with a group of women gathered together. The

women talk about their dissatisfaction with being marginalized at home or at work. One

woman opens the film with a tragic story about how she was made to believe as a young

girl that marriage was her only way of being successful, or as she put is it “I was gonna

have it made when I got married.” The film however, does not just focus on middle-aged

married women. Another strong scene is that of a young girl who appears to be in her

20’s. She talks to her fellow women about the struggle she had as a woman in her

professional career. After dreaming of becoming a professional writer she got a job as a

typist at a publishing agency. Instead of climbing the ladder she eventually realized that

she was spending her time typing manuscripts written by men. She also explains how

because of her attractiveness her boss was using her to attract male writers to the agency.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the way the women are shown

talking to each other in groups. The idea of a “Consciousness-Raising Group” became

widespread among women in the late 1960’s. Through these groups women were finally

getting together and sharing their thoughts and opinions about how their lives could be

better. It acted as a support group for the Feminist movement to grow out of. Watching

the film, it almost appears it is one long meeting of a consciousness-raising group.

Throughout the film the audience eventually notices the different groups of women but

one can get the feeling that these women could all be in the same place. The woman who

opens the film talking in a close up shot with her children wandering around the room is

eventually joined at the end of the film by a group of women. It is in this scene where

she describes her own consciousness-raising group. I also that the most effective shots

pertaining to the group settings were not the close ups of women telling their stories but

the close ups of the women listening to those stories. Several times throughout the film

while a woman is talking there is a cut to a shot of another woman, maybe two women

just listening. The directors even went a step further with shots of women talking with

other women listening in the background or other women chiming in with words of

support for the woman speaking.

One of the most important consciousness-raising films ever made came after The

Woman’s Film in 1974. Where The Woman’s Film began as a collection of women

talking about their problems the film Self Health went a step further down the

consciousness-raising road. The film is a documentary about a group of women who get

together and explore their bodies. Tired of being told that their bodies belonged to male

doctors, women were educating themselves and each other about everything from minor

health issues to childbirth. The film was accused of being “pornographic” because it

showed women giving each other breast exams. This is the ultimate irony considering

the way women were and still are being objectified in popular culture.

The Woman’s Film not only paved the way for a new style of feminist documentary

but it also gave women the courage and inspiration to pick up a camera and point it at

what they felt was wrong with the world around them.