A tacit critique of male entitlement from one of the Nouvelle Vague’s shrewdest social observers.
The urban cool of the French New Wave is pointedly absent from the downright quaint opening of Le Bonheur. Its credits play over a montage of sunflowers, the editing of which amusingly grows ever faster and more chaotic in a series of escalating jump cuts for no real purpose, a benign parody of Nouvelle Vague formal experimentation that pokes fun at the inherent meaninglessness of rule-breaking while reveling in the energy of messing around. As Varda cuts between flowers, one recurring image shows a family in the deep background gradually approaching the camera, their carefree walk through a field as delightful and idyllic as the flowers themselves.
The sunny mood lingers as we get to know the family in question. François (Jean-Claude Drouot), his wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot), and their two young children relax in a park for Father’s Day looking like a postcard come to life. With the kids napping under mosquito netting, the adults lounge beneath a tree, framed within the frame by stalks of verdant plants and lit in the mild haze of warm sunlight. The family’s life is a portrait of happiness, and none looks more content than François, who enjoys the total devotion of all the women in his life. Varda subtly exaggerates Thérèse’s devotion and extrapolates it to the general role that women play in pre-sexual revolution society. Numerous shots in the film consist of little more than women smiling warmly at the mere presence of men, reflexively seeking to please. In one scene, Thérèse, a seamstress, is consulting with a bride-to-be when François returns home, and Varda includes close-ups not merely of Thérèse habitually giving him all of her attention when he walks in but the client also beaming at François.
There’s no sign of discontent in François’s life when he goes on a business trip, whereupon he meets Émilie (Marie-France Boyer). The two grab coffee together at a café as new acquaintances, and the camera displays their respective points of view as they become easily distracted by things around each other, be it the drinks served to the woman sitting behind Émilie or the young couple embracing behind François. It’s a clever means of visualizing how the two still regard each other as strangers, and the camera exaggerates the literal distance between them by whip-panning across the table between them as they speak. At one point, however, Émilie moves closer, so that the two occupy the same frame, and a line is subtly crossed. Soon, the two begin having an affair, with François merrily seeing Émilie during the day and enjoying equally loving interactions with his wife at night.
Varda, always a less polemical director than her male peers in the Left Bank and New Wave dens, was nonetheless one of each movements’ shrewdest social observers, and she roots François’s blasé happiness in a tacit critique of male entitlement. François, who feels equally attracted to both the women in his life, thus sees no problem with his adultery, able to give each woman attention. Used to the idea that women exist to make men happy, he almost feels as if he is performing his own duty by fulfilling his wife and lover. Freely discussing Thérèse, François also resolves to tell Émilie about his affair, less out of guilt or obligation than a bizarre desire to share with her why he has been even happier lately. And when François does confess, Thérèse’s initial acceptance of this fact seems to confirm his sense that there is no issue.
But then, the film’s final minutes plunge into mordant comedy as Thérèse reveals how badly she really has taken the revelation that she was not enough to satisfy her husband. Varda twists a satirical knife as Thérèse goes missing in the same park the family visited at the start of the film, prompting François to run past a number of men milling around to ask if they’ve seen her, all of whom reveal they pay so little attention to anything around them that they do not know. Only a woman points out his wife’s whereabouts, and almost absent-mindedly François dumps his kids into the lap of a random old woman to rush to the spot where Thérèse is. What should be a shocking moment is instead immediately compartmentalized, and the value of women as companions for men is underlined by a coda in which François’s family is casually rebuilt with nary a mention of what has transpired. In its own way, Le Bonheur is one of the most scathingly political films of the New Wave, a seriocomic portrait of a society that views half of its subjects as expendable and interchangeable, pre-empting the socialist aims of filmmakers like Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard with a keen eye for the fundamental domestic imbalances that must be rectified before any social progress can be made.