Le Bonheur: Objective Distance and the Subjective Gaze

The idyllic introduction to Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) places spectators in a familiar narrative situation when it comes to traditional norms. The coupling of a Mozart arrangement with a husband, wife and their children in the woods is an ideal example of what many might expect happiness to look like. Throughout the film, however, Varda lifts the veil back for spectators “to enter directly into the cinematic world and use their own experiences and definitions of happiness to color their reception of the movie.” (Hottell 64). The spectator can decide whether or not the resulting happiness of the characters is justified based on their own subjective beliefs. In this manner, the film depicts a clashing of objectivity and subjectivity through form and camera gaze.

To establish this conflict between objectivity and subjectivity through the gaze is to first illustrate it visually through Varda’s use of color. The film begins and ends with the frame being consumed by color, starting with red and concluding with yellow. These frame-consuming transitions happen periodically throughout the film with different colors, but with no explicit explanation as to why or what they mean. While interpreting the meaning behind Varda’s use of color requires spectators to exercise their own subjectivity onto the film, the use of color presents an objective visual tool to do so. Color is static and definite in its presentation, which aligns it with a sense of objectivity in how spectators view it. Subjectivity in what the colors represent and how color is used within the film’s setting is something always up for discussion, however by presenting an entire image with nothing but one singular color, spectators all view the same objective image. These moments seem to happen more as formal transitions or pauses in between moments when time and narrative move forward. Varda’s color inserts, when removed from any narrative context, then become objective images; spectators can agree that red is red and yellow is yellow, etc. Of course, while “red” might physically appear differently to some people than to others, they can still agree that red is red through their own understanding of what “red” is. This anomaly between assessing the image as objective or subjective through the gaze of the individual, then becomes the essence of Le Bonheur‘s thematic conflict, or at least the conflict that stems from our own viewing perspective.

In blurring these lines, there are instances in Le Bonheur when Varda inserts seemingly unrelated, possibly non-diegetic shots and transitions. These moments force the viewer to question whether or not they are gazing at something that is or was real within the film’s narrative setting. For instance, while Francois drives to work in his van, inserts of lions looking back at the camera are shown, yet they have no narrative significance because Francois never actually interacts with them. It might be implied that Francois is driving past a zoo from a geographical construct behind the vehicle, which lends the association that these lions are real things that live within the same world as the characters. Once the scene transitions to the post office where Emelie works after she says “What a pretty bird!”, after an image of birds is shown, spectators might assume that the characters are in fact at a zoo looking at the same birds that we are looking at. What is then revealed is that Emelie is actually referring to stamps with illustrated birds on them. When looking at the stamps, the gaze seems as if it might be from a character’s subjective perspective, such as Emelie’s, though it’s revealed to be from no one’s perspective because the camera is placed in between two separate figures, Emelie and her co-worker, who are revealed to be the only characters looking at stamps in the following shot. By confusing the spectator and presenting something that may be objective truths about this fictional world or subjective views from a character, gazing assumes the position as a genderless, disembodied activity that the spectator experiences. In essence, it makes them aware of the distance between them and the narrative space they’re watching.


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