Berkeley, Pacific Film Archive, Le Bonheur

I actually don’t get back to the Berkeley campus or its surroundings very often, and when I do, it’s usually on the north side where my graduate-school life centered: the computer-science or computer-music centers, the winding roads of the hills, or the “gourmet ghetto.” It’s pretty rare that I find myself on Telegraph Avenue or along the south side of campus, as I did this time. It seemed like very little has changed, many of the shops, restaurants and institutions along the street are still there, many of the buildings look the same. But it did seem a bit cleaner.

While in Berkeley, I saw a screening of Agnès Varda’s film Le Bonheur at the Pacific Film Archive.

It basically a film about a young family living a Paris suburb and leading a life that seems so overly perfect that something bad clearly is going to happen. In this case, it is the husband and father François beginning an affair with another woman. As the affair progresses, the film, whose its rich colors and classical soundtrack do seem to resonate “happiness”, very gradually begins to feel a bit unsettling, and eventually a bit creepy.

Even as it is a film about a particular set of circumstances and events that happen to a family, it is also very much a film about colors. Each scene seems to focus on a specific color. The initial scene of the family on a picnic in the countryside is all yellow, and the family’s (somewhat small and cramped) apartment is blue. In each of these scenes, everything matches the primary color, from the flowers to the background light to the clothing worn by the family. This is particularly apparent with yellow and blue dresses of Therese, the wife and mother (and coincidentally, a dressmaker). She reprises these colors throughout the film, they seem to represent the “happy” aspect of the family. By contrast The scenes with mistress Émilie, particularly those in her apartment, are stark white, with only sparse adornment such as movie posters on the wall. The colors also change with the seasons over the course of the film, from yellow in spring to bright green in summer, to muted orange and brown in the autumn.

Before the film, I did take a quick trip through the Berkeley Art Museum. Although they did have interesting exhibitions – Mario García Torres’ multimedia installation focusing on ruined buildings on a Greek Island that once housed modernist performances and installations, and an eclectic assortment from the permanent collection – it was in some ways overshadowed by the building itself, with its large space and oddly angled concrete balconies.

Perhaps the thing that makes visiting Berkeley most different now is that I am living in San Francisco, so the trip is now going from a large city to a medium-sized college town and then back at night. It’s not good or bad per se, it’s just different, and coming home to the city at the end of the day (instead of the trip in the middle) has become quite familiar, and comforting.