||For some observers, writer, director and documentarian Agnès Varda began the French New Wave movement in cinema that spread from the late nineteen-fifties and into the sixties, as her debut feature La Pointe-Courte from 1956 could be identified as the starting point that so many others followed on from. That most of those others were men perhaps did not speak to much more than film directing being regarded as a largely male preserve, no matter that in other branches of the arts women had been on a more equal standing by then: music, painting, sculpture, novels and short stories, drama, but for some reason men were still calling the shots on the movie sets. You could argue things have not moved on tremendously since then, but they are improved, and it is thanks to Varda this was not seen as too outrageous.
Some people still balk at the notion of a female airline pilot, after all, but with La Pointe-Courte, named after the location the loose plotline took place, Varda demonstrated she could capture an arresting visual or marshal a cast as well as any male counterpart, and if men went on to be more prominent in the movement, few overlooked her contribution. The film was a meditative roam around the fishing village in a manner not a million miles away from her international breakthrough Cléo from 5 to 7 was for Paris, largely following two lovers, Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Montfort, as they talk through their relationship amidst picturesque and aesthetic compositions, as the locals prepare for their jousting celebrations in the harbour. There was love, grumbling, tragedy, even playfulness; if not as accomplished as some claim, Varda's talent was obvious nevertheless.
This was borne out when, after a selection of shorts, she struck gold with her international hit Cléo, and became the most visible female proponent of the New Wave, some would say the only woman to make an impact on the male domain of being behind the camera. However, as successful as that was, she didn't consolidate her newfound popularity straight away, as family life with filmmaker husband Jacques Demy was taking up her time, though part of that inspired her next production, Le Bonheur, translated as Happiness, though a more ambiguous title in light of what ultimately takes place would be difficult to imagine. At this point, Varda's passion in life was nature, and though Demy wasn't too interested she did like a good picnic, so off they would venture to the idyllic countryside and spend a few hours amidst the flowers and birds.
Which is precisely what the protagonists of Le Bonheur (1965) do, husband François Chevalier and his wife and two young children, played by TV’s Thierry de Fronde (sort of a French Robin Hood fighting the English) Jean-Claude Drouot and his actual family, which either made this more cosy or a lot weirder given how it unfolded. They come across as the perfect nuclear family, and Varda's camera, as with her debut, divined striking imagery with her vivid colours and careful compositions rendering this one of the most beautiful of the nineteen-sixties, though after a while you began to question the work's motives, for it had a darker heart than its surface would indicate. Chevalier was a joiner by trade (you may be more alarmed to see the staff smoking away merrily in among all those wood shavings - health and safety, anyone?), and he had found contentment.
Relatively early contentment, as his love for his wife is evident, he couldn't be happier with his two kids, and scene after scene presented this unit as the ideal for all of us to live up to. So why does Chevalier suffer a wandering eye? It's not as if he is skirt chasing around the town, he is a normal young dad who has apparently settled, yet a postmistress Émilie Savignard (Marie-France Boyer) catches his attention with her comeliness and soon he is head over heels in love again. Does this mean he leaves his wife Thérèse (delicately sweet Claire Drouot in her sole film appearance) and the kids? Nope, he seems to be under the impression he can stay with them, sustain that family, while having a relationship wit Émilie, and she as the "other woman" seem happy enough with this arrangement if he is.
As you can imagine, here was where things became disturbing, as the characters behaved as if in a fairy tale - no magic or fantasy elements involved, but the appearance of faeries dancing around the heads of the characters as they picnicked would not have been out of place, somehow - and as we know, such fables could have a streak of Dark Ages cruelty about them to serve up their lessons and give them texture. So it was with what Varda achieved here, as while she obviously took great delight in delivering the exquisitely-hued visuals, with charming asides such as the little daughter, after acting in a scene, breaking the fourth wall to offer some peppers to the audience (or Varda behind the camera, more probably), something truly awful occurs that makes Le Bonheur difficult to forget since it retains uneasy mystery sustaining bullying nature's balance between the sexes.
It does so by making clear a bond between one couple which retains an enigma, and that is where the film contains its power, however one of Varda's last narrative movies before she settled into an old age of making documentaries on a noticeably lower budget than many of her more famous pieces would enjoy demonstrated a bond between a married couple that had no mystery about it. Here it was clear the union was one of shared respect and genuine affection, for Varda's husband of three decades Jacques Demy was the subject, and the reason he could not make the film himself was that he was dying from a terminal disease, AIDS, which was sapping his energy yet also having the effect of guiding him back to his past, in particular his younger years in Nantes. Ever the loyal wife, she agreed to film the account herself.
Naturally, the shooting and editing of Jacquot de Nantes was something of a rush job, a race against time in three "bursts" that was intended for an audience of one, Demy himself, and if anyone else drew inspiration from it, so much the better. Three boys were cast as him at different stages in his life, mostly during what happened to him in the town of Nantes during the Nazi Occupation of France, though passing beyond those dark days to detail how he finally graduated from crafting amateur animations to securing a position in a Parisian film school, which was where the story ended, not a spoiler - if you knew anything about the background you would be aware that Demy became one of his country's greatest filmmakers come the Nouvelle Vague and all the opportunities that opened up for him and those like him.
Those like Varda, who did not feature as a character, yet whose glowing presence suffused the biographical drama since without her the film would never have been made. She interspersed scenes of black and white recreations of thirties and forties France with either Demy himself reminiscing, or employing closeups to illustrate the ravages of his age and illness and give the impression of a full life lived from that day to 1990 when this was released; he would pass away in October of that year. Then, in Varda's typically scrapbook approach, there were clips from many of her husband's films, from the famous (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, of course) to the more obscure (A Slightly Pregnant Man, also starring Catherine Deneuve). Somehow this patchwork achieved a cohesion and managed a heartfelt tribute from one great director to another.
But perhaps more than that, from one human being to another, showing their love for one another, and that compassion has run through Varda's filmography even in her harshest works, such as 1985's award-winning Vagabond, a tale of a teenage drifter told in unsentimental terms that saw Sandrine Bonnaire as an overnight star. Varda also made her own musical after a fashion with One Sings, the Other Doesn't, a slice of life that expanded into a biography of two fictional women in 1977, and if she remained best known for Cléo from 5 to 7 after all these years, the fact that she retained a worldwide coterie of fans as she turned to documentaries in her autumn years was testament to her personality and humanity in the style she applied: her road trip Faces Places in 2017 was released when she was eighty-nine years old, making her one of the oldest directors still active in the world.
[Curzon have released The Agnès Varda Collection on Blu-ray, containing all the above films and more on eight discs, accompanied by a wealth of interview material and short films to build up a comprehensive picture of one of France's most enduring and respected directors.]