“Le Bonheur”: The Happiest Infidelity Story of All Time
Wholesome, idyllic, and sweetly tragic were the first few descriptors that came to mind after watching Agnes Varda’s third feature film “Le Bonheur.” The film centers on a intimate family in a small town — their happiness, love for each other, and contentment. Their lives seem perfect, and as you later find out, they actually are.
After the filmmakers establish the Chevalier family’s routine, relationship with one another, and blissful existence, Francois meets a cute postal office worker, Emilie. Their interactions are innocent at first, but they eventually become explicit. As to be expected, the wife and family remain completely unaware of this woman’s presence in their lives. It’s strange to say this, but even when Emilie (who is her own actualized, real, dynamic character in the film) is thrown into the mix, the film maintains its even tone of idyllic happiness. Oftentimes, narratives centered around infidelity start at a high with a strong element of intrigue, the expression of want, and lust, later falling to a low where the cheater, or undeclared polygamist, has to deal with the aftermath. However; this film holds a new rhythm. “Le Bonheur”, in a way, hits harder because of this merry, unfazed tone. It’s almost eerie.
We’re watching the film through Francois’s eyes, who sees loving Therese, and then, loving Emile alongside Therese, as a continuation of his own personal happiness. He doesn’t believe he’s damaging the two women involved and lives with the assumption that since he’s happy with the situation, they are too. SPOILER. When Therese accidentally, or perhaps purposely (with quick regret) falls into the river and drowns, there is a wave of shock and sadness that comes with her tragic end — to both us, the viewers, and the characters on screen. But even sadder, is Emilie’s immediate substitution into the role of wife, mother, lover. It almost feels disgusting — you question why Francois and/or Emilie find this quick, unfazed transition acceptable. Perhaps they take it as a stroke of luck? Perhaps they try not to think about this at all? Doe she feel awkward about this substitution? Does she realize just how wrong this is, but ignores it for the sake of her own happiness? Does HE? Francois is saddened by the passing of his wife, of course, but after a brief mourning period seems back on track with maintaining his individual happiness. It all feels so even and uninterrupted, a sunny continuation of life as it is lived — which makes it feel even sadder. As if nothing happened. They’re all still happy.
It’s a film so simply done but with great complexity in its subconscious messaging. It seems like a lovely, lighthearted film about love and summertime, but at its roots, it’s a deeply pessimistic, feminist tale. Colorful, beautiful, and sweet, this film can be watched again and again, not only for its imagery, but for its emotional truth. I am already eager to watch this film again, an innocent narrative about selflessness and selfishness.