Thursday, July 27, 2017

My Favorite Agnes Varda Film

The female cinema auteur is a rare creature, and there haven't been many who have managed to fill my requirements for an entry in my Great Directors series.  The few who have, like Leni Riefenstahl, Věra Chytilová, Ann Hui, and Chantal Akerman, present the additional dilemma of obscurity.  It's very difficult to find many of their works.  The same was true of the beloved New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda until recently. It's thanks to the efforts of Criterion and Mubi that I'm finally able to include her here.   

I came to Agnes Varda's films knowing very little about their historical and political context, though I recognized that many were explicitly feminist.  "Le Bonheur" or "Happiness" was released in 1965 just before the political climate would really become explosive, and though it appears mostly peaceful and lovely on the surface, the undercurrents of unrest are visible.  The plot is very simple: a happy young family's existence is upended by a moral lapse and resulting tragedy, but this unpleasantness is quickly resolved with disturbing efficiency.    

"Happiness" can be viewed as a reflection of the French women's movement of the time, as women began to enter the workforce and became more socially conscious.  This is done through the film's cynical examination of romance and relationships in particular, how the protagonist views the two women in his life, and how his worldview is challenged or fails to be challenged.  There have been many interpretations of the film over the years, and its intentions are not entirely clear.  Is Varda warning against the false security of domesticity?  Condemning the newly emerging sexual revolution?  Should we consider the protagonist a villain for seeking his version of happiness or merely pity the wife who cannot accept it?  Or is self-delusion the real culprit?

What really gives the film its bite is the contrast of all these thorny psychological questions with the stylized loveliness of the mise en scene.  The film largely takes place in the pastoral French countryside, and the lives of the characters are portrayed as sunny and idyllic.  They picnic in beautiful clothes, surrounded by bright flowers.  The young children are unusually well-behaved, and no one ever appears tired or stressed.  Even the most mundane chores are brightened by the presence of colorful household objects and artful composition.  Instead of fading to black, the screen fades to blocks of solid color.  It's worth noting that this was Varda's first color film, and remains one of her most eye-catching.  

Also very evident is Varda's aggressive editing style.  She coined the term cinécriture, or “cine-writing,” to describe her method of directing, which involves highly detailed planning of sounds and images to maximize their effectiveness within the narrative of a film.  And it's in the editing of all these pretty, colorful images that you really get a sense of something amiss in the universe of "Happiness."  There's the relentless quick-cut montages and the use of repetition.  There's the use of the musical score to underline the emotions of the characters, and their incongruity to the situations we watch unfold.   

There are also some metatextual elements, which would become very prevalent in her later work.  Popular television actor Jean-Claude Drouot was cast as the lead, and his wife and children were played by Drouot's real life wife and children.  It gives the satirical elements of the film a few more teeth, knowing the picture perfect family was one that was already familiar to the French media.  However, "Happiness" stands apart from Varda's other films in that it is so stylized and removed from reality, lacking the documentary-style blurring of the real and the unreal she often employed.  

I had some difficulty deciding on "Happiness" as my favorite Agnes Varda film, because I don't enjoy it nearly as much as some of her later films, particularly her warmer, self-reflective documentaries.  However, "Happiness" was the film that stuck with me, years after I saw it.  I've never been able to shake the chill that the ending gave me, or the strangely sinister vibe of the gorgeous domestic imagery.  I keep coming back to it, again and again, and ultimately I think it's the Varda film that best encapsulates everything I so admire about her.      

What I've Seen - Agnes Varda

La Pointe Courte (1955)
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Happiness (1965)
The Creatures (1966)
One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977)
Vagabond (1985)
Jane B. by Agnes V. (1987)
Kung Fu Master! (1988)
The Gleaners and I (2000)
The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

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