“Happiness” it is a word we hear all of the time, but when asked to define it, rarely will you find two people with the same answer. Agnes Varda’s 1965 film entitled Le Bonheur, which translates literally as “happiness” explores what it truly means to be happy. The narrative follows a young man named François who is in a loving marriage with a woman named Therese. François meets another woman whom he falls in love with and the two sleep together. One month into his affair François tells his wife about his mistress Emilie, and asks her if he can continue seeing the other woman. Therese, in a surprising twist agrees to the husband’s proposal, but shortly there after drowns in a nearby pond. The movie offers a provocative look at adultery, as well as the concept of a happy family.
Adultery is generally seen in society as morally reprehensible. Le Bonheur however takes a different stance on the issue. François is able to achieve a new level of happiness through his affair. His love for his wife is not diminished, and he instead manages to love two women at once. When Therese vapidly agrees to let him carry on with his mistress François views his own happiness as being doubled by having two women, instead of one. Varda manages to provide a situation in which the idea of an open marriage seems perfectly acceptable. All parties benefit, and there is nothing lost. It all seems strangely serene. However, the euphoria falls apart soon after François tells his wife. Reality hits when Therese drowns, and his perfect plan falls apart. Varda pulls the viewer in one direction throughout the film, and then in the last fifteen minutes slaps them in the other direction.
Varda’s tender depiction of the affair coupled with a whimsical soundtrack and bright cheery colors gives an impression of innocence to the situation. François truly believes what he is doing can be justified if his love for his wife is unchanged, and it is hard as a viewer not to agree. The whole film is light and rich; at no point in the film is the issue of adultery given any real moral weight; it is intentionally dealt with very lightly. The family has a level of artificiality to it. No family is that happy and content. Even when the man loses his wife he moves on with the new woman Emilie a bit too easily.
Varda’s perspective, which comes through in this film as well as her others, is that happiness comes at a cost. It is best summed up in a quote from her later film Vagabond that goes “ To be completely free one must be completely alone.” Although made twenty years later Varda’s philosophy doesn’t seem to have changed. In order for François to be happy with his newfound mistress he must lose his first love. That is life, a constant series of sacrifices all in search of happiness.
Le Bonheur in a sense could be considered a satire of sorts. Varda exaggerates the happiness of the couple in the film to such a degree that it seems farcical. It never becomes humorous, but it also never takes itself too seriously. The affair again is so innocent to a extent that it becomes unbelievable. No one should be that happy and in the end none of the characters in the film can be. Happiness is fleeting.