By Margaux Williamson (mostly spoilers)
( I went to Suspect Video, the best video store in Toronto, to look for Agnès Varda’s 2004 “Ydessa and the Bears” but they didn’t have it. Though it is one of my favourite movies, I haven’t seen “Ydessa and the Bears” anywhere other than at a 2004 film festival. I think maybe it was never distributed. Instead, I rented Agnès Varda’s “Le Bonheur (Happiness)” because I had never seen it before and because it was in colour. I popped it in when I got home just to see the what the first 5 minutes was like. It was so weird and gorgeous that I didn’t turn it off.)
“Happiness” starts with a young family. Their joy with each other is obvious and they have a simple, pleasurable life. The husband then falls in love with a different woman whom he sees often in his work. The husband and the other woman begin an affair that is easy, happy and not so sordid. The husband reasons that what he has is simply a double happiness. When his wife points out, during a picnic in the country, that he seems doubly happy, the man looks suddenly troubled and confesses to his wife that he loves both her and another woman. The wife is initially hurt but then seems to quickly follow his reasoning and recover. What is best for the family is best for her. The husband and wife then have reconciliatory sex, there on the picnic blanket in the country. She wakes up before he does, leaves him and their two small children who are taking a nap close by, walks down to the lake, and drowns herself.
This is followed by alarm, an appropriate mourning period and then a gentle reconciliation of the two remaining lovers. At this reconciliation, they decide to be together. In the following scene, the woman walks to work the next day. Foreboding music only comes once in this movie, and it comes here. To me, the foreboding music sounds like a warning of moral judgment approaching. I peer around the woman in the movie’s frame as I watch her walk through the town, looking for reproach. It is a small town after all, and we are inside a fable.
But no stones are thrown. And there are no real bad intentions from anyone’s side. The foreboding music is for something more sinister: life moving on easily, happiness returning. We watch one human effortlessly replace another: in a marriage, at a family picnic, in the children’s bedrooms, with not a whimper of protest from the universe.
Behind the camera, Varda is a happy and curious God – as interested and amazing by a vase with flowers as she is in a family at dinner or in the strangeness of elbows as they move about during sex. I think when things comes naturally to one, one is often suspicious of those things. And here, it seems as though Varda the director is like the husband – each scene of the movie filled effortlessly with spaces and objects and people of incomparable value and importance but all taken in with equal attention and wonder. Varda would have been a very good painter.
The only review I could find for “Happiness” was a 1966 New York Times review from A.H.Weiler. Though Weiler praised Varda’s movie in some ways, he also says “Miss Varda’s dissection of amour, as French as any of Collette’s works, is strikingly adult and unembarrassed in its depiction of the variety of love, but it is as illogical as a child’s dream”.
I wonder if people said that about Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (where a family’s main breadwinner, Gregor, wakes up one morning to discover that he is a monstrous verminous bug) which “Happiness” made me think of – particularly at its most sinister and truthful moment. This comes at the end, after the nightmarish alienation and slow death of the now repulsive and useless Gregor. After he dies, Gregor’s family leaves the house together in a state of tremendous relief and take a tram towards the country – towards fresh air. They are suddenly giddy with the future and with possibility. This is when the parents notice how their remaining child has become so beautiful, voluptuous and strong. We catch a tiny glimpse of the parents imagining a potentially prosperous new future through her. We see her in the instant before (we imagine), before she is ushered into the rotting shoes of the family bread winner.
Both fables make you feel sorry for humans – and also quite wary of them and their human natures. We all know what it’s like to feel like a cog in the system, but it is easy to forget that our homes and families are systems too. That even there, where our beauty and usefulness are often most greatly appreciated, we are so easily replaced.