Title

“Making Sense of the Replaceable Beloved in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur”

Subject Area

French and Francophone Studies

Abstract

This paper examines Agnès Varda’s cryptic 1964 film, Le Bonheur (or Happiness), and the filmmaker’s use of uncertainty to destabilize the viewer’s hierarchy of values and codifications of morality. In this film, the death of the protagonist’s first wife vacates a place for his mistress to immediately join the household and replicate her predecessor. As he is deeply in love with both women, Varda offers no logical reason as to why this transition is so sudden and so apparently effortless and inconsequential. Sparing the stylistics of realism, Varda instead utilizes visual poetics and hyperbole to position the film at arm’s length from authenticity, likening the film to a modern-day myth, and in this tradition, speaks to certain recognizable phenomena in the human experience: the replaceable beloved. This portrayal of love may not have squared with popular sensibilities of morality in early 1960s France, but as Varda’s film reminds the viewer, when a society builds itself around eternal sacrosanct monogamy and then frequently counters this ideal with versions of polygamy and/or uninterrupted serial monogamy, the philosophical questions behind these practices merit consideration.

In partial disagreement with critics that claim Le Bonheur is a social critique, I argue that Varda does hint at such a critique, but only enough to initiate a conversation. She creates disequilibrium in order to activate the viewer’s intellectual and emotional response system but then does not satisfy the intellect’s desire for certitude in order to keep critical thinking in play. The film’s refusal to be decoded serves to create a barrier between the viewer and the characters, preventing the usual process of viewer/character identification. By jarring the audience with the characters’ passivity, thoughtlessness, and simplicity, Varda demands that the viewer deliberate on the ethics of a situation that the characters so conveniently ignore.

Brief Bio Note

Alexis Seccombe Giachetti is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She focuses on 20th century literature and cinema from Italy, France and Spain. She is currently writing her dissertation on the philosophy of romantic love in mid-20th century Europe.

Keywords

Agnes Varda, Le Bonheur

Location

Coastal Georgia Center

Presentation Year

2016

Start Date

4-8-2016 3:30 PM

End Date

4-8-2016 3:50 PM

Embargo

10-19-2015

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Apr 8th, 3:30 PM Apr 8th, 3:50 PM

“Making Sense of the Replaceable Beloved in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur”

Coastal Georgia Center

This paper examines Agnès Varda’s cryptic 1964 film, Le Bonheur (or Happiness), and the filmmaker’s use of uncertainty to destabilize the viewer’s hierarchy of values and codifications of morality. In this film, the death of the protagonist’s first wife vacates a place for his mistress to immediately join the household and replicate her predecessor. As he is deeply in love with both women, Varda offers no logical reason as to why this transition is so sudden and so apparently effortless and inconsequential. Sparing the stylistics of realism, Varda instead utilizes visual poetics and hyperbole to position the film at arm’s length from authenticity, likening the film to a modern-day myth, and in this tradition, speaks to certain recognizable phenomena in the human experience: the replaceable beloved. This portrayal of love may not have squared with popular sensibilities of morality in early 1960s France, but as Varda’s film reminds the viewer, when a society builds itself around eternal sacrosanct monogamy and then frequently counters this ideal with versions of polygamy and/or uninterrupted serial monogamy, the philosophical questions behind these practices merit consideration.

In partial disagreement with critics that claim Le Bonheur is a social critique, I argue that Varda does hint at such a critique, but only enough to initiate a conversation. She creates disequilibrium in order to activate the viewer’s intellectual and emotional response system but then does not satisfy the intellect’s desire for certitude in order to keep critical thinking in play. The film’s refusal to be decoded serves to create a barrier between the viewer and the characters, preventing the usual process of viewer/character identification. By jarring the audience with the characters’ passivity, thoughtlessness, and simplicity, Varda demands that the viewer deliberate on the ethics of a situation that the characters so conveniently ignore.