How Agnès Varda's Le Bonheur Influenced Modern Movies - VRGyani News and Media

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Thursday, August 26, 2021

How Agnès Varda's Le Bonheur Influenced Modern Movies

Editor's note: The following contains spoilers for Le Bonheur.Le Bonheur, a 1965 feature from director Agnès Varda, begins with an opening credit sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. As text unfolds revealing the cast and crew members of the production, audiences watch a sunflower wilt away before their very eyes. Occasionally, we’ll get abrupt cuts back to when the sunflower was at its peak, a reminder of all the vibrancy now lost. As this sunflower fades away, though, neither the bright colors surrounding it nor the jaunty score from Jean-Michel Defaye change.

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The story that transpires from there concerns François (Jean-Claude Drouot), a man whose life truly seems like something ripped out of a postcard or fairy tale. He’s got a loving wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot), as well as two kids, Pierrot (Olivier Drouot) and Gisou (Sandrine Drouot). When we first meet this family, they’re having an idyllic day in the park, all of them basking in gorgeous sunlight while green shrubbery surrounds them. It all looks so pristine that it's only a matter of time before something comes in to spoil everything.

Eventually, François gets smitten with postal worker Émilie Savignard (Marie-France Boyer). The impetus of this relationship is quite spur-of-the-moment; there is no tragic element in François’ life that would instigate him to look elsewhere for love and affection. As he and Émilie grow closer, François repeatedly, calmly notes that he has a family elsewhere that he still loves very much. It’s another great example of how Le Bonheur creates an uneasy atmosphere without technically showing anything harrowing. François may be reaffirming his love for Thérèse, but it’s still in the context of cheating on her. Saying he still loves her means nothing when he’s being unfaithful.

Despite François’ wandering heart, the visuals of Le Bonheur continue to be stunning and reliant on glossy colors. Sexual rendezvous between François and Émilie are depicted against bright blue backdrops, while scenes depicting François engaging in rudimentary domestic life don’t deviate from their previous visual norms. The bright lighting and glorious colors remain, even as deceit lies beneath the surface. In a fascinating visual feat, Varda has created a persistently anxiety-inducing atmosphere that instills panic in the viewer by not calling attention to ever-simmering turmoil.

The commitment to visual normalcy just puts one on edge wondering when things will go sideways, a brilliant manifestation of Alfred Hitchcock’s declaration in the book Hitchcock/Truffaut that the best way to generate tension is to show an audience a bomb of which in-movie characters are unaware. Like in that scenario, you can’t help but get invested in wanting to tell these people about the devastating issue hiding in plain sight.

Eventually, Le Bonheur’s emotional “bomb” does go off during a trip to the woods, where François is asked by Thérèse why he’s been so happy lately. Here, François reveals that he’s been seeing another woman. To make this go down easy, he uses an analogy of his current family being like an apple orchard and his mistress being like another separate apple tree to signify that he’s only adding more love to the world, not taking away anything.

The quietly powerful dissonance here is informed by the contrast between François’ obliviously hurtful words, which compare two women and his kids to trees, to the gorgeous surroundings, peppered by trees, the very object he compares his loved ones to. A setting used in the opening of Le Bonheur to accentuate the seemingly perfect tranquility of this family life is now emphasizing just how brutal François’ confession is. His faithlessness is so persistent that it can even intrude on this paradise.

Juxtaposing harsh reality with these gorgeous woods returns again in the most brutal moment of Le Bonheur, when François races down to a lake to discover that Thérèse has drowned herself. The audience sees the corpse on-screen draped across bright green foliage. Varda doesn’t transform the woods into something harsh to reflect the mood of this tragedy. They remain, as ever, stunning, the colors sumptuous, though now they mock François with the reminder of the beautiful world he threw away with his infidelity.

After all, this was a place once used by this family to escape the horrors and responsibilities of society. A location previously ripped from a postcard is now forever intertwined with the terrible loss of Thérèse. Keeping to the bright visual aesthetic even with the discovery of Thérèse’s corpse also quietly suggests how the consequences of François’ actions can follow him anywhere. Even in somewhere that looks like paradise, his dismissal of Thérèse’s perspective (right down to referring to her as an apple orchard) can still result in Earth-shattering ripple effects.

Varda’s use of visual dissonance throughout Le Bonheur is absolutely masterful, right down to the final scene showing François and Émilie walking through the woods with François’ kids. The consistent visual approach to this environment right to the end renders Le Bonheur a circular narrative. François is right back to inhabiting a postcard-perfect vision of family life; there’s just a different-looking woman in his life.

The contrast between the sunny imagery and what’s happening on-screen caps Le Bonheur off on an impactful note by quietly drawing attention to how François views the women in his life. Going down this road, one could even see the consistently peppy visuals as an extension of François’ warped worldview. Such a perspective isn’t substantially altered by the loss of Thérèse’s, so why should the cinematography of the film he inhabits be varied? There are many ways to interpret the way Le Bonheur juxtaposes bright visuals with a grim story, and they all further reflect just how well-crafted this production is.

So powerful is this defining quality in Le Bonheur that it’s no surprise that it appears to have influenced pieces of 21st-century cinema. Wes Anderson’s works, for one, certainly owe a great deal of credit, with their ornately designed visuals that typically contrast with melancholy plot details and even on-screen violence. The death of Snoopy in Moonrise Kingdom or the most vulnerable parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel wouldn’t resonate so deeply with viewers if they didn’t have such visually sumptuous backdrops to contrast against. Anderson, like Varda decades earlier, understands the power of making these moments anomalies in a visually gorgeous world.

Meanwhile, fellow modern-day auteur Ari Aster has similarly used brightly-colored tableaus as the backdrops for gruesome stories, including Midsommar, another movie about a guy who doesn’t have time to consider the women around him as people. Even Hereditary, Aster’s 2018 feature that heavily employs dark lighting and nighttime setting, lingers on a decapitated head in bright sunshine, while a treehouse and other environments look ripped right out of a storybook, not a horror movie. Much like with Anderson or Vadra, Aster recognizes how effective it can be to have vicious behavior and disturbing developments play against visuals that look like they should be comforting.

Projects like these harken back to Le Bonheur and how it challenged the viewer through upending norms of what certain visuals are supposed to communicate to us. Varda used colors, locations, and types of lighting meant to convey warmth or safety for more brutal means. In the process, she was able to channel the complexities of reality, where horrifying or traumatic events can happen anywhere, even places that look so reassuring. It’s a visual accomplishment as tremendous as it is subversive, which makes it no surprise that Varda’s work on Le Bonheur continues to have ripple effects across all kinds of modern-day cinema.

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