Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda’s 1965 film, opens with two rotating shots of sunflowers in the French countryside, coupling the opening credits at the beginning of the film. The returning floral motif in the film could be said merely to represent typical notions of femininity, in which the fragility and beauty of a flower are meant to express these qualities as ideal feminine traits. The flowers in this sequence might merely serve to demonstrate the beauty and cheerfulness of a family’s day in the countryside, or to establish the “happiness” of the couple through the bright colors and formal beauty of abounding flora. But, the sunflower sequence does something else, too: the circular, iris-like center of a sunflower in bloom becomes a visual metaphor for the oculus, or eye, itself, and the two sunflowers could be said to be looking at each other, performing a non-traditional shot-reverse-shot sequence. This might seem an incidental, or completely erroneous, observation, but the rapid-cutting employed towards the end of the sequence mirrors a de-facto shot-reverse-shot sequence towards the middle of the film, exposing the true work and coding of the interplay between the sunflowers. In Varda’s vision,
The sunflower sequence (left) is edited precisely like the shot-reverse-shot sequence on the right.
sunflowers, innocuous and ubiquitous, are just as likely owners of gaze as people, positing that viewers and voyeurs are ever-present, as an unwelcome third party witnessing or sharing a private event. Not only do the sunflowers seem to share a conversational interplay like two people in a shot reverse shot, but the second flower take focus (literally) away from the family at the center of the film, interrupting the first sunflower’s beholding of them and obfuscating them. In Le Bonheur, an affair becomes a metaphor for this unwelcome other. Gaze is like a mistress–it is an unwelcome third participant, that, like the foregrounding of the second sunflower, or the sunflower’s apparent gaze itself, detracts and steals from a private interaction between two people.