Adultery is “happiness”—and then the other shoe drops

Adultery is “happiness”—and then the other shoe drops

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The adultery-themed comedy The Other Woman has us thinking back on other films about infidelity.

Le Bonheur (1965)

Le Bonheur (translated informally as Happiness) is like a mirror image of Contempt, a look at the same subject from the opposite side. Where her French New Wave confederates zeroed in on adultery’s destruction, Agnès Varda sees an idyll as sickly sweet as flypaper. A family is celebrating Father’s Day in the country, the costumes vibrant, the landscapes painted with flowers. As everyone settles down, the camera peers through the foreground foliage, refracted into a dreamy twinkle around the sight of a happy couple nestled beneath a tree. It looks like one of the telegrams commissioned to represent happiness on the wall of the post office where married François (Jean-Claude Drouot) meets his mistress, Émilie (Marie-France Boyer). He can hardly believe it. He’s already happy with his wife. Now he’s doubly happy.

François says he loves both women. Varda betrays him with telling vignettes, like his trip past one coffee shop to a better one. Contrasts are everywhere. In the first shot of François’ home life after he meets his mistress, the house is bifurcated: He’s in the bathroom shaving, and his wife, Thérèse  (Claire Drouot), is in the kitchen feeding their son, a wall between them crowding her out, both of their bodies split by opposite edges of the frame. The wife and the other woman are polar opposites. Thérèse is a domestic heroine who works out of their house as a seamstress. Émilie is a single girl in the city who does electronic work. Thérèse runs a colorful, cozy home. Émilie’s spare, white apartment is unfurnished. As in Varda’s first feature, La Pointe Courte, there are parallels: François is content with his wife in the park and rejuvenated with his new love in the city.

Eventually François can’t bear to keep his secret any longer and tells Thérèse how happy he is with his two families, opening the doors to the controversial final act. Neither lecturing him nor diminishing her, Varda lets her camera do the telling. It’s not for nothing that Émilie introduces her apartment in a following shot that lingers on the Vertigo spiral in her hairdo. In its interrogation of the characters’ ostensible happiness, Le Bonheur records ironies and exposes cliché. But it leaves moral accounting to the audience. The ending is a confrontation, another pastoral collage but this one subverted by frustration. Suddenly those days in the country turn. The ants were there all along.

Availability: Le Bonheur is available on DVD—packaged with three other Varda films, and obtainable through Netflix—and to stream on Hulu Plus.

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