Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Le Bonheur

In Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda concentrates on the relationship between happiness and the natural order of things. Varda uses the relationships among the three main characters (husband, wife, and postal worker) to illustrate how living a life in consonance with nature eliminates the petty jeolousy that ruin more "normal" lives lived according society's arbitrary constraints. Varda's use of color illustrates that even these lives have a natural arc to them.

In this sense, Le Bonheur is a continuation of where Varda's earlier film, Cleo From 5 to 7, left off. In the earlier film, Cleo was able to realize an inner strength only after shedding society's affectations in the presence of an unassuming soldier on leave. This simplification takes place in the only natural setting in the film: a park within Paris.

Le Bonheur starts off in a park; not within Paris, but one in the countryside. The implication is that in this simpler setting the clutches of society's affectations are less ruinous and only occasionally intrude. The most sinister intrusion is during the construction of a clubhouse by some of the men and their sons when one of the boys declares that, when finished, women will not be allowed in.

Despite this occasional jolt, both husband and wife lead an idylic life with family, coworkers and friends. Which is what Varda wants us to observe.

Even the addition of a lover (the postal worker) for the husband doesn't complicate their lives. This is because the couple (now effectively a trio) live in accordance with the simplicity of natural laws. These laws do not recognize marriage as a convention. Instead, these laws recognize the right of the husband to pick his mates as he pleases (consistent with the lion presented by Varda), as long as all are truly happy.

The understated reaction to the subsequent death of the wife is the most vivid example of how natural law differs from societal convention. The family's loss does not precipitate a crises. The wife is mourned respectfully, the children arranged for, and then everyone moves on. Later, the husband and lover move in with each other and the children once again have a complete family. It's the natural order of things. There is no permanence to the sadness brought about by her death.

That Varda does not inform us as to how she died (accident, murder, suicide) says that how she died is immaterial. It is of consequence only in a society obsessed with the why. In their simpler, less affected life, the family simply needs only to acknowledge she's passed on.

The use of color throughout the film lends a sense of a passage of time and accumulaton of experiences. The husband, wife, and lover triangle is not one in the usual sense, since at no time are they presented in oppostion. Instead the three are more like points on the same line of experience. This line changes when the lover comes into play, and once again when the wife is found dead. All the time the line is moving forward in time.

If this line was in color it would start out the bright yellow of the opening sunflowers and find its point in the muted colors of the autumnal greens and reds. The bright colors grow progressively richer as the film progresses, and in this way both marks the passage of time and accumulation of experiences. And it is the simplicity of these experiences, enjoyed without false affectations imposed by society, that Varda would have us cherish.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cleo From 5 To 7

Agnes Varda's film opens with a scene at a psychic's office. From cards selected by Cleo, the psychic detects a sickness inside Cleo that will force her to fight for her future. The psychic also foresees Cleo undergoing a complete transformation. Varda hints that we will see the real Cleo at the end of the film when Cleo doesn't "appear" to the psychic until the last card is overturned.

The immediate problem for Cleo is a "cancer" that has invaded her body. The larger (larger than death) problem, it turns out is equally insideous: society's cancerous affectations. These affectations have been force fed (Cleo's "cancer" is in her stomach) to Cleo for so long that they have taken over her being. Cleo no longer is who she is.

The real Cleo exists behind a mask. It's a mask she wears willingly. There isn't a mirror or drama opportunity that Cleo refuses. Besides Cleo, the mirrors (and windows) reflect the fleeting events of the day (both large and small: calvery marching down street - perhaps off to Algiers, Cleo trying on hats) thereby linking Cleo to the transitory nature of these events. Cleo confirms this when she states that "trying on things intoxicate me."

Of course Cleo is not the only one affected. Everyone in the film wears society's affectations, most of them on their sleeves. Examples are Cleo's assistent puffing her hair during a shampoo commercial, Cleo's boyfriend busying himself with appointments, Khrushev sending Kennedy a dog after their meeting, and, more poignently, a little boy playing a tiny piano on a curb after Cleo has accussed her songwriter of never teaching her how to read music, implying he thinks such a skill is not (according to him) necessary for her.

Through these and the chock-full-of-snippets street and cafe scenes, the sense that society imposes arbitrary rules on its citizens is made clear. That these rules are transitory ("what was bad for you one day, may help the next") and that society is exclusively male-dominated (men are the decision makers in important (world) affairs) is also made clear.

While the men in Cleo's life see her as a pearl (an object born of an irritation) and view her "beauty" as her health, Cleo knows that there is more to her than her superficial affectations. And it's enough to make her sick. Varda shows us this when Cleo hears one of her songs in a taxi and quickly pans to terrifying masks outside the taxi. She then finishes with a nauseous Cleo.

Cleo's path to redeeming her true being goes through an old friend, Dorothee (Dorothee Blank), and an unassuming soldier, Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller). Dorothee thinks nothing wrong of posing nude for a class of sculptures. According to Dorothee (Varda) posing nude is a natural act and not indecent as the affect is to allow the students to see something beyond her body: an idea. Cleo counters that this posing is "indiscreet." And it is this hurdle - exposing herself - that Cleo has to overcome to survive in her world.

Cleo does this with the help of Antoine. Her restlessness has led Cleo to a park (naturalistic setting). There, she seeks the relaxing constancy of a waterfall where she meets Antoine. Antoine, on leave and unware of what Cleo represets, sees her without preconditionings.

Away from the glare of society, Cleo sheds her affectations and opens up to Antoine, figuratively exposing herself to him just as Dorothee had done with the students. In Antoine, she finds someone willing to support her without strings attached. By revealing her fears to him, Cleo is able to face down the fear of her possible "cancer" and visits the hospital for her results.

Upon discovering she is indeed sick, Cleo finds herself at peace, confident in the inner strength she now knows she possesses. The real Cleo, it turns out, is beautiful inside as well as out, even with the warts (cancer).