Near the end of Agnès Varda's sharp little amorality tale, Le bonheur, I immediately conjured up a series of alternate endings. Rather than indicating a flaw in this potently gorgeous French New Wave drama, however, my inspiration was, instead, a coping mechanism for fending off the movie's direct and stirring assault on conventions.
Real-life spouses Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot star as François and Thérèse, a married couple whose lives seem cloaked in modest bliss: he works in a small shop, she as seamstress. During the week they snuggle into a cozy flat with their two young children (Olivier and Sandrine Drouot, also related) and on weekends escape to picturesque meadows and farms. Although the couple appears to be very much in love, and François is by all appearances an attentive husband and doting father, he decides that monogamy imposes an artificial limit on his family's happiness after flirting with Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), an attractive single postal clerk.
Varda's second feature gets misplaced criticism for its bold depiction of women passively succumbing to male whims, but Varda's intent in Le bonheur seems to be purposefully provocative in that regard: she is questioning the agency of French women in the early 1960s, not reinforcing the norm. Her use of vibrant colors and romantic pastoral settings not only echoes (her husband) Jacques Demy's candied romantic vision but archly presents the question of infidelity through the point-of-view of a man who is innocent to the point of sociopathy in his belief that indulging his selfish sexual desires is a net positive for not only his family but the entire world.
The cinematography in Le bonheur — by first-timer Claude Beausoleil and Umbrellas of Cherbourg D.P. Jean Rabier — is bracingly beautiful, but even more exciting is Janine Verneau's discordant editing, which frequently interrupts Varda's idyllic frames with alarming effect. During the opening credits, sunflowers become invasive harbingers of doom, and the courting and love scenes between François and Émilie are presented in disjointed close-ups. However, Varda doesn't lean too heavily on this more ostentatious artistry. Most of Le bonheur is presented in seemingly simple but immaculately orchestrated long takes, accentuating the movie's perfectly defined spaces as well as François' instinctively predatory nature.
Near the end, Le bonheur takes a turn that might seem too simple by today's standards — and, in the movie's single major flaw, this point is presented neither clearly nor believably — but just as I crafted my own preferred alternate outcomes in response, Varda concocts a masterful final scene that puts the perfect bow on an immaculate heart-shaped package that is full of lushly diabolical surprises.