Criterion Month – On the Fragility of Family in ‘Le Bonheur’ and ‘Wildlife’

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” states Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina. And the unique complications of family life have since been explored in film by Agnès Varda in Le Bonheur (1965), and Paul Dano in Wildlife (2018). In both, male indulgence threatens the sanctity of the nuclear family, and while the father figures aren’t limited by their pursuit of selfish desires, the women are left behind, without purpose or the social mobility to follow suit. 

Set in the 1960s – when advertising and tradition merged to push the archetype of the happy housewife, and in rebellion, a sexual revolution began – this contemporary conflict is placed within the microcosm of a family. Wildlife and Le Bonheur reveal how, despite new freedoms on a larger scale, patriarchal notions still left wives and mothers little room for expression. 

Le Bonheur, which translates as ‘Happiness’, centres around François (Jean Claude Drouot), a carpenter living a simple life with his wife, Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their two children. In an opening of sunflowers and the bright colours of impressionism, sunny bucolic scenes that echo Jean Renoir’s Picnic on The Grass, Varda lifts optimistic imagery to reinforce the domestic bliss in François’ life. 

Despite the countryside contentment, Varda dubbed this piece a “gorgeous summer peach with a worm inside” and this rotten side reveals itself when François has an affair with post-office charmer, Emilie. Though he always tells Emilie how much he loves his wife (“she cooks well, she’s nice, she’s always there… our children look like her”) and spouts flowery language about all the love he has to give, he hides this relationship from her. While Thérèse is supporting another woman with her wedding and looking after the kids, her husband is away with his mistress, pretending he has more to do at work. While women are presented with images of marriage on stamps and greeting cards, the other workmen talk with Francois about the restriction of loving only one woman, with an office cupboard plastered with magazine cutouts of models. 

Enabled by this social conditioning, women become accessories for Francois’ satisfaction: he tells Emilie “she’s like a new wine” and tells Thérèse that he wants more children, but “doesn’t want to exhaust her… they need their time to rest together”. In the final act of the film, after one of the family’s traditional Sunday afternoon picnics, he confesses, and while he tells Thérèse that he’ll stop seeing Emilie if she wishes, he once again places himself first: “it’s silly to miss out on more life and love.” Though she appears convinced, when he wakes up, she has disappeared, only to be found drowned on the side of a lake. 

Despite her dedication to him, and all the reasons he listed, Thérèse was not enough and she couldn’t bear it. But, after a brief mourning period, François goes back to Emilie, who transitions from a reassuringly free woman to a future wife: “your happiness means the world to me.” From here on, Varda carefully avoids her face: we see Emilie’s hands as she feeds the children, irons the clothes and arranges flowers but her individuality is no longer significant, filling that capacity of wife and mother just as easily as Thérèse. 

Here, François’ love of nature is a “manifestation of patriarchal psyche”, the sunshine pathetic fallacy for his reckless optimism. Though his secrecy suggests that he knows his double life is unsustainable, he rejects the idea like he rejects talk of winter – delaying the inevitable. As autumn arrives, the film closes on an almost identical silhouette to the opening credits, Emilie indistinguishable from Thérèse, dressed in red and yellow hues as the sun sets on the film. The season has changed as quickly as the woman and, in her playfully pessimistic way, Varda’s fable shows men can remain unscathed by consequences in a way women cannot.

Wildlife, meanwhile, deals with the 1960s retrospectively, based on a 1990 novel and adapted by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan last year. Without a voice-over, the film tells the story of the Brinsons – Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) – through the perspective of their fourteen-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). They begin with a similar image of domestic bliss, father and son playing football, mother helping with homework. But, having just moved to Montana for a new job, Jerry is fired and refuses to return out of pride, immediately creating tension at home. As Joe begins work as a portrait photographer, his snapshots of unfamiliar friends and families are juxtaposed with the rift growing between the three of them, heightening their sense of isolation within the already desolate landscape. 

Driven by a need to prove himself, instead of accepting a cashier’s job, Jerry joins the fight against the local wildfires, leaving Jeanette and Joe alone until winter. The spiralling identity crisis Jeanette goes through shows how much she relied on her husband and her role within the family for security and purpose. Without him, her supportive optimism turns to aggressive realism. She begins lecturing her son to focus on wealth and independence, telling him bitterly about her younger self, how she left university to get married and left teaching for the move. While Thérèse aspired to be a wife, telling a young bride “it’s the most important thing”, Jeanette grieves for her youth, and struggles to reconcile her need to relive it with her need to be a responsible mother. 

Her spiral leads to an affair with a richer man, not particularly out of desire like François, but desperation for financial security. Her son is confronted with this betrayal first-hand and expected to react, she bluntly explains: “he wants to make things better, if you’ve got a better plan than this, I’ll hear it”. 

When Jerry returns in the winter, somehow expecting his family to be waiting for him, Jeannette has changed and is ready to leave him. Though he was able to fight the fires within his conscience – both literally and metaphorically – and take the time to readjust his priorities, his wife didn’t have the same luxury. 

“I feel like I need to wake up but I don’t know what from.”

Seeing this story from Joe’s perspective helps the viewer see Jerry in a less judgemental light. He clearly misses his high-school glory days of football, and struggles with not living up to the American Dream of hard work and success. When his superiors fire him for being too friendly with rich clients, he is beginning to see that he can’t escape his class: “they just don’t want small people like us to go ahead”. Nature represents a much harsher reality here than in Le Bonheur, inescapable and unforgiving in moments of frustration. By the final frame, Joe’s own family portrait, it’s clear that though the dream still flickers in Joe’s mind, a family forged so young was doomed in these circumstances. 

The men in these films feel entitled to yield to their desires and find themselves, whatever the consequence, but the families truly fall apart without the stability and dedication of the mothers. While Wildlife focuses on how women can be crushed by the weight of that responsibility, Le Bonheur shows how submitting to it can dehumanise them, erasing their own desires. The latter is far more exaggerated, but as Garfunkel & Oates so eloquently summarised: “Can we stop pretending that it isn’t kind of sad, that your mom never pursued anything with the same intensity as your dad.”

Le Bonheur is available as part of the Criterion Collection and Wildlife is now on Netflix in the UK

by Fatima Sheriff

Fatima is a third-year Biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack.  She loves TV shows with original concepts, witty writing, and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, and Sense 8. Her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.

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