Agne`s Varda, Agnieszka Holland

Last weekend marked the latest Cinema Legacy (“how great filmmakers inspire great filmmakers”) event sponsored by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden) presented French filmmaker AgnËs Varda’s provocative Le Bonheur (1964). Not only do both filmmakers share the same first name, but they’re among the most famous women filmmakers in their respective countries. (Holland also includes the Czech Republic’s Vera Chytilov· in their company.) Although Le Bonheur was made several years after the birth of the French New Wave, Varda’s first film pre-dated (or even initiated) the movement in 1954. While the Cahiers du CinÈma group became the hub of the New Wave, Varda (along with her husband, Jacques Demy) remained a part of the Left Bank group of filmmakers, which included Alain Resnais and Chris Marker.

Le Bonheur (Happiness) is a film of shimmering sunflowers and smiling faces, hugs and kisses and lazy lunches in the countryside–so much so that everything begins to ring hollow, especially after the protagonist (a young carpenter with a wife and two children) begins to share his bountiful love with a new mistress. It’s not a problem, he insists, because he has so much love to share with the world that loving more people can only increase happiness all around; he loves his family even more. As the film progresses, its bright tones and playful montage, its strains of Mozart concertos, slowly unveils a world that is logically cohesive but philosophically deeply fractured.

In fact, the film is so brimming with the joie de vivre that Varda has been criticized by feminists for the way in which it seems to support masculine fantasies and notions of the complete interchangeability of women, but these critics miss the point. Varda’s film is a glowing indictment of this fantasy, and it chooses to illustrate it with poker-faced sincerity. Instead of forcing her message, she constructs the film with removed aplomb and trusts the audience to reflect on it, thus ultimately rendering a more damning critique. “It’s a beautiful fruit that tastes of cruelty,” Varda has said.

A large portion of the audience I saw it with was positively outraged by the film. Derisive, uncomfortable laughter and chuckles punctuated the entire screening, a postmodern audience balking at Varda’s extremely subtle use of irony. One of the aspects of the film that I enjoyed the most was its complete lack of easy laughs. The story is what it is; judgment is placed firmly in the audience’s lap.

Although the event was moderated by a local critic, Holland needed no help with the audience Q&A, and deftly fielded remarks, and posed her own in the illuminating post-screening discussion. What Holland has learned from Varda, she said, is the ability to see both sides of every character, the good as well as the bad, and to suspend judgment upon them.

AgnËs Varda, now 75, continues to make films. Her latest success, the documentary film essay, The Gleaners and I (2001), is one of the high points of recent documentary cinema. Her other classics include ClÈo from 5 to 7 (1962), and Vagabond (1985). For more information about her, check out the Zeitgeist Films page and Senses of Cinema‘s entry on Varda for their Great Directors series.