International Women’s Day 2019: Decoding an obvious 'women’s film' versus a not-so-obvious one
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (Turkish, 2015) is a typical 'women's film' with tropes that include empowering women, and helping them break free of oppresive structures. But what about the not-so-obvious 'women's film' like Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (French, 1965)?
The term “women’s film” is a problematic one, though it has its uses.
American film critic Molly Haskell wrote in her classic book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, “A film that focuses on male relationships is not pejoratively dubbed a ‘man’s film’.” Point noted. But the term is useful to discuss a type of film, something like Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (Turkish, 2015), which is the story of five orphaned sisters — all hovering around their teens — who are subjected to increasing oppression. Their uncle refuses to let them go to a soccer match. (“It’s not your place to be in the stadium with men.”) As they increasingly seek freedom, the windows of their room are barred, the walls of the house become higher. And even when they move into another house, after marriage, the trials continue. After the wedding night of one of the sisters, the in-laws exclaim: “She did not bleed.”
In short, the well-intentioned Mustang is everything you expect from a “women’s film”. It shows how women are treated in a patriarchal society, how they yearn to break their shackles, and so forth. This is why I call it “obvious”, because it checks all the boxes that have come to define a “women’s film” today. Now consider another film directed by a woman, the great Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (French, 1965; the title translates to “happiness”). At first, it doesn’t seem to be a “women’s film” at all. The protagonist is a man, a carpenter named François. He lives in a small town with his dressmaker-wife, Thérèse, and their very young children. It’s an impossibly idyllic life, and in her Criterion Collection essay, the critic Amy Taubin described it perfectly (and hilariously): “They obviously adore their children, who never whine, almost never cry, and have the peculiar gift of falling instantly asleep anytime their parents want to make love – which is often.”
The pastoral quality of this family’s life is reflected in the opening stretch. As François and Thérèse and the children picnic in what appears to be a countryside park, we reminded of Impressionist or Post-Impressionist paintings. (The opening visual is that of a sunflower.) But consider the first shot of François at work, putting a log of wood through a shredder. As the chips fly, it appears to be a contrast to the beautiful, all-intact greenery in the park — a portent, perhaps, that François will destroy the perfection (of family, of nature) we sensed in the opening images? Sure enough, he takes on a mistress, Émilie – and we think we know what’s coming. Thérèse will find out. Her life will be shattered and like the wife in An Unmarried Woman or Arth, she will walk out from the shadow of her husband and finally “find herself”. (I put that in quotes because it’s one of the most durable and recurring tropes in "women’s" cinema.)
But here’s what happens – and see how Varda uses Nature to describe François’s nature. He tells Émilie (who knows he is happily married), “Thérèse is like a hardy plant. You’re like an animal set free.” And this is how he breaks the news to Thérèse, after she observes that he seems happier than usual: “You and I and the kids, we’re like an apple orchard, a square field. Then I notice an apple tree that grows outside the field and blooms with us. More flowers, more apples. It adds up, you know.” The emotion in the title spills over the film, but only with respect to François. It’s all about his happiness. Thérèse tells him (after his bombshell revelation), that she loves him even more. “Since you’re so happy.” And later, when he wonders if Émilie is the marrying kind, she says, “Doesn’t matter. You’re my happiness. You and your life.”
Seen on the surface, then, what kind of “women’s film” is this — that too, from one of the greatest female filmmakers of all time? And that too, from a film coming two years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), which helped unleash the phenomenon we know now as Second Wave Feminism, demanding for women more than just equal voting and property rights? François is not a player. Thérèse isn’t, say, a shrew François seeks to flee from. And Émilie isn’t a man-hungry, sex-obsessed tigress on the prowl. This all-round “goodness” and the lack of causal symptoms were surely why women were outraged by Le Bonheur, and male critics confounded. AH Weiler, in The New York Times, called the film “illogical as a child’s dream”. He said, “a simple fable for our time, that is highly unlikely and blithely flouts moral values and Hollywood conventions.” But of course. Remember that the biggest American film of 1965, the year Le Bonheur came out, was The Sound of Music. Forget sexual politics, the heroine was a nun!
But Varda is on to something, here. This was her idea behind Le Bonheur and its nature imagery: “I imagined a summer peach with its perfect colors, and inside there is a worm.” The image of François and Émilie in matching sweaters is at once comforting and chilling. This “matched perfection” — matched also by the fall colours in the same countryside park we earlier saw François and Thérèse in — is most unnatural, and it seems to me that Varda has essentially served up a cautionary tale. If you are stupid enough to put your man’s happiness before yours, this is what will happen to you. That’s the “worm”. The feminist messaging, if you will, is far less obvious (or in your face) than that in Mustang, but much more powerful.
Varda, it appears, wouldn’t have had much patience with a lot of what passes for “women’s cinema” these days. Excerpts from a 1977 Gerald Peary interview: “Women have become upset [with Le Bonheur] and asked, ‘How could you replace a woman with another woman?’ That’s what life is about. A man is replaced by another man in war. A woman is replaced by another woman in life.” According to Varda, after François’s admission of the affair, Thérèse should have told him, “Go to hell! I want to be alone with you.” It’s almost like Varda painted the wife like an angel, just so she could be proof of what happens when women strive to be one. Mustang is cleaner in the lines it draws: the young sisters are indeed angels who need wings, the men are demons. It’s a narrative we recognise, we cheer for. But Le Bonheur poses the tougher questions. François is a good man, a borderline angel, but what use is it when he cannot guarantee his women the happiness he seeks for himself?
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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