It must have come as a political shock to see a film in 1965 highlight, with such casual brutality, the privilege of the male patriarch. Agnès Varda’s third feature, Le Bonheur, is such a contradiction in its conveyance of a happiness, ignorant of morality, that its shock is rarely diminished. The film is a colourful, seasonal evocation of a very unusual ménage à trios which evolves with the harsh precision of biological necessity rather than with any moral compass for its main male character who gradually replaces his wife with his mistress to become his lover and eventually a surrogate mother to his children.
Much analysis has been given to both the film’s gradual changes in colour (which are inherently beautiful, especially in its capture of natural fauna) and the changes of the main character, François (Jean-Claude Drouot) who is sketched with subtle malaise by both Varda and Drouot. Yet the film has another aspect which, though often gets a mention in the typical critiques, is rarely awarded the significance that it potentially has within the emotional and moral development of the film. This aspect is of Varda’s use of music, more specifically the use of two pieces of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. These two pieces are the only source of nondiegetic music within the film so are instantly given a heightened sense of thematic importance due to their recurring nature.
The two pieces in question are his Clarinet Quintet in A – K. 581 and his Adagio and Fugue in C minor – K. 546, both of which reoccur several times throughout the film. Of course, Varda has a clear agenda in the placing of these two pieces of music. In a general sense, their constant stride and shifting tones and moods deliver a whole host of potential usage, reflecting the gradually more morbid shifts of the film itself. K. 581 also has a very clear rhythmic tie to several of Varda’s cuts, deliberately mimicking the contrapuntal nature of piece and adhering to its syncopation while finding a serendipic mirror in the visual of falling leaves and the opening Clarinet melody lines. Various sections of the piece are used, often during sex scenes or scenes of joy for the man.
It is, however, the second piece of Mozart that is most interesting in relation to the film (K. 546). This is not only because its own creative history somewhat reflects the film’s own narrative but also because of the clear audio-visual relationships sewn together. Le Bonheur is about happiness (the title being the French equivalent of the word) and deliberately negates the realism of the emotional fall-out that would no doubt occur if such a situation was to happen in reality. Varda’s film is shocking because it shows the barefaced honesty with which the male patriarch feels entitled to its own privileged stance of polygamy.
When the wife (Claire Drouot) eventually finds out about her husband’s affair, she at first accepts his word that he loves them both equally and they have sex in the local park. She then, almost as if by some act of a higher power, walks away in a trance and commits suicide by jumping in a lake. The rest of the film then shows how the mistress (Marie-France Boyer) calmly and quickly takes her place, not simply by her own will but because of the emotional will of the husband. All of this brutality is coupled with a carefree cinematic aesthetic, full of bright colours, springtime visuals and the giddy cutting style of the French New Wave. Even the characters themselves seem oblivious to the clear moral bankruptcy on display as if it’s a natural quirk of the world.
Only within the music is the true austere nature of the situation presented. It presents itself as a clash, as if the real heartache behind the situation is trying to bleed through into the characters’ lives; as if even Varda is banging her own head in anger at the absurdity which the patriarch is allowed to get-away with. The string quartet presents the closest thing to reality for the viewer who, at this point in the narrative, should be furious at the characters for allowing such a transition to take place. The fact that the replacement of the spouse is presented as a naturalistic transition is disturbing but coupled with the history of K.546, it seems a perfect attack upon the ambivalence towards criticism of the patriarchy itself.
K.546 itself went through a transition. The fugue element of the piece was composed five years earlier than the finished string quartet, when Mozart was still in clutches of influence from Bach (and also Handel). It was not until five years later that the piece eventually found its way into the string quartet; itself seeming to be an exercise in orchestration for Mozart’s greater known works (namely his final three symphonies which he was working on at the same time). This process mirrors the emotional development within Le Bonheur where a relationship is dropped, changed, and recontextualised with newer, more personally important themes (important to the husband and to Mozart, not simply in general).
With this final thematic tie-in, Le Bonheur‘s use of music is clearly complex but also deeply thought-out. This isn’t an audio-visual relationship simply chucked together but one that presents a multitude of aspects deliberately left-out of the usual cinematic conveyance. The music does have an aesthetic and dramatic resonance but most of all, Mozart’s music presents deeper motives for Varda as a director; not only as a visual and aesthetic innovator but a true pioneering dismantler of the male patriarch through cinematic means.