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Full Bloom: Sunflowers in Agnès Varda’s "Le bonheur"

An exploration of Agnès Varda’s 1965 film through its evocation of sunflowers.
Patrick Holzapfel
"Plants may sweat profusely but never sully themselves."
—W.H. Auden
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.
It’s impossible to miss the sunflowers in Agnès Varda’s not-quite-as-sunny-as-it-seems Le bonheur (1965). They appear right in the title sequence of the film, accompanied by title cards in the yellow of the flowers. Throughout the film they reappear in different shapes and forms, for example on dresses, postcards, and in bouquets. Varda’s film not only deals with a man perfectly happy with both his wife and his mistress, she deals with the way this world may look in his mind. Shot in beautiful colours by cinematographers Claude Beausoleil (no pun intended) and Jean Rabier, Le bonheur captures the vividness of all kinds of flowers but gives special attention to the yellow shades of sunflowers. Why is that?
Since its initial release the film has caused many different and sometimes quite disturbing reactions. It has been argued that the rural idyll the film displays is meant ironically. Varda herself claimed that it is not as simple as that, but that she was inspired by paintings (the most famous painter of sunflowers being Van Gogh, who can by no means be suspected of being either ironic or idyllic) and the images of family life by the way it was presented in television (German critic Frieda Grafe referred to this as the “ideology of picnics”).
Varda also admitted to adding paint to certain flowers to enhance their effect on film, causing them to collapse minutes after the shot was done. The film was shot in a decade when color was much more important than it is in today’s mostly quasi-monochrome digital palette, which must have inspired Varda to use the color of flowers like a musical motive throughout the film. Le bonheur has been described as a horror story about the one-sided perception of happiness in a relationship and thus about male selfishness. Nevertheless, Varda was attacked for portraying women as dependent and weak. She defended herself by stressing that those women do exist.
Time and time again, the main protagonist François uses bucolic metaphors to describe his ideal state of love between his wife Thérèse (“a hardy plant”) and his mistress Émilie (“a wild animal”). His romantic infatuations are hard to swallow since there is no consideration for the other parties involved, but they reveal something about the symbolism at stake. What this or that flower stands for is a question of perspective and context.
At the post office in which François (Jean-Claude Drouot) meets Émilie (Marie-France Boyer) there is a selection of postcards for happy events. One of the motifs shows a sunflower. It’s common to associate sunflowers with happiness in Europe. But if we look at different cultures we discover different meanings. Inca civilizations, for example, worshipped the flower as a symbol of the sun. Native Americans, who are thought to have domesticated the plant around 3,000 B.C., placed sunflower seeds on graves, and in some regions of China the flower is a symbol for longevity.
Accompanied by Mozart, the sunflowers in the beginning of Le bonheur might evoke a certain feeling of harmony but the more sunflowers we see and the more they reappear the more complicated things get. When Thérèse (Claire Drouot) disappears from her family, we may detect sunflowers on her dress and the yellow color almost seems to be inverted and later, when Émilie replaces her, the presence of sunflowers almost seems to mock any idea of beauty. It’s even possible to discover some withered sunflower stalks in the autumnal forest at the end of the film. So, whatever we want to make of the sunflowers in Le bonheur, we should reconsider the plant itself.   
The common sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus, the one most often referred to, as it has one head which looks like the sun) is one of 65 different species of sunflower. Each sunflower head is actually composed of two types of flowers. What appears to be yellow petals around the edge of the head are actually individual ray flowers. The face of the head consists of hundreds of disk flowers, which each form into a seed.
Its name derives from helios (sun) and anthos (flower) and goes back to a supposition that they follow the sun during the day. But the heliotropic stage of the flower only occurs at the so-called bud stage when the flowers are very young, while they always face east when mature. In the patriarchal society that Le bonheur shows, the sunis without a question the man. However, the heliocentric worldview might collapse, at least in the viewer.
The romantic and optimistic sentiments we attach to the sunflower are justified by its bright beauty but seem rather fanciful when we consider the plant as an industrial crop for oil and seeds. Among crops it is a superstar, especially in Russia, Europe, and some parts of South America. It is used as an ornamental plant (like in much of Le bonheur), for medicinal or alimentary purposes, as feedstock as well as for dyes for the textile industry, body painting and decorations. Since the sunflowers in the opening of Le bonheurare industrial, we might find some hidden seeds for further thoughts. The flower accounts for approximately one tenth of the world oil supply and its importance increases as it is used as a renewable energy source as well as for synergies between food and energy production.
While a crop rotation of four to six years is advised, the demands of the market as well as technological advances seduce companies to grow sunflowers in shorter rotations and even monocultures. The result is yield decline and ongoing damage for the environment. It is tempting and not without revelation to draw a parallel between monoculture and the image of family life as portrayed in Le bonheur. What could be an image of beauty and happiness might in fact cause harm. What is meant to be a place of sharing ends up being about one flower only causing destruction. What seems to possess the brightest color might end up turning away, as do some cultivars that turn downwards to protect themselves from hungry birds.
In the end of the film the image fades to yellow but it’s a different, less harmonious yellow than in the beginning.  A sunflower is not a sunflower is not a sunflower.

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