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HAPPY - 2015

The Oxford English Dictionary describes HAPPY as an adjective denoting a feeling of pleasure or contentment.

Jacques Attali in We, Europeans, Are Alone, said, since the twenties, Europeans gradually became accustomed to the idea that, even if they made a thousand mistakes, there would always be someone to save them from their own turpitude. And the United States also gradually settled into the role of Deus ex Machina. And indeed, they saved us (with Stalin) from Nazi monsters with their army; they saved us from our economic sclerosis with the Marshall Plan; and they saved us from the Soviet threat with their nuclear missiles. He further elaborated, this support has always been carefully managed and limited: the Americans had done everything so that their Allies could continue needing them. It was out of the question for the Europeans to be independent militarily, financially, culturally, industrially or technologically. There was not a single strategic industry in which the United States did not seek to either maintain control, or deprive the Europeans from doing so. Similarly, there was not an area of law where the Americans did not try to set the rules. And there was not an area in innovation where the Americans were not pulling the strings. Today, everything has changed. Europeans can no longer afford to not see that they are alone; that the Americans are no longer there to defend them; that the American President makes his decisions without taking into account either the point of view or the interests of their allies.

You might as well wonder what I am trying to arrive at by drawing a corollary to something as commonplace as politics when the composition of this piece was meant to be on film. What people hardly ever understand is that a great deal of film has to do with what is around us – it is a medium that rather mirrors existence. While America did manage to militarily, financially, culturally, industrially or technologically control the Europeans, one thing it failed to control was their art and cinema, more so due to the tenacious temperament of the creative people not succumbing to any sort of external coercion, and this is what HAPPY, written, produced, and directed by Jordan Goldnadel is fundamentally about.

Jordan plays the protagonist Florent, 23, an upper class Parisian. He is intelligent, kind, and dressed with a philosophical smile. He meets Alessia (Isabelle Ryan), 23, a continually fuming, strangely sophisticated and nonsensically naïve lost American photographer in Paris. Bored in a society that praises the failures of men and women who give each other what they ‘need’ and not what they ‘want’ with the result that love becomes infected, Florent feels fossilised in Paris, and dreams of America. Alessia, on the other hand is trying to separate herself from her typical origins, far from the artistic and adventurous life she intends to lead, and dreams of achieving it in France. As luck would have it, Florent and Alessia meet at a park, where Alessia begins to take photographs of Florent without his consent. Amused at her brazenness, he asks her if she isn’t aware of image rights, and instead of finding herself engulfed in a pail of shame, she grins and asks him by virtue of gestures to move his face a little to a side in order for her to take more pictures of him.

Life is small, I had read somewhere, and our routines are rote and nearly imperceptible. Often, in writing classrooms, we’re told that it’s this smallness that makes a piece of literature. It said that most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting (that’s Updike). Or, Life is not plot; it’s in the details (that’s Jodi Picoult). Usually, though, this sentiment ends up seeming as hollow and insincere as: write what you know because we do cherish plot, we do fetishize the arc, the action, and the twist, in nonfiction, we also fetishize the about-ness. We openly question if the reality of a writer’s subject is worth discussing. We prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of prose, the sincerity of emotion. Underneath it all runs that same droning question: Who cares? Who cares? Who cares? Virginia Woolf really cared about that poor moth, and Didion really cared about her notebook, and Montaigne really cared about, well, everything. That is Jordan as a writer to me – inventive, and not some celebrity who lands up on a talk show and narrates a story about their kids as though no other child has ever existed. Admire how he cares about the close ups of objects – of the food, of expressions, of the waiter cleaning the table at the café, the book lying on the table. Every little element has something that is stunning in Happy because movies merely like to concentrate on the extravagant. They like to light up every frame like people are dressed up to go to a party. And anyone who has lived well enough to understand life understands that we are not always our best all the time, and life is certainly not a party, (despite us wanting to present to the world that we each live in this gorgeous, near perfect life in a predominantly ‘social media’ driven world). On a larger stance the attentiveness to such detail was a befitting symbol of stopping awhile and taking note of things that we generally tend to overlook whilst going about the drudgery of day-to-day survival. The further attention to art and artefacts, the artistry of the etching on the whiskey glasses, the scarlet Cartier lighter, each of them that are brought into cinematic focus are there to tell us a story within a story. Florent disrobing the shrimp at the restaurant as Alessia begins to speak is a strapping allegory that leads to the robust manner in which her feelings are denoted in the setting. The fascinating part: where she utters ‘and’, pauses, and then utters another ‘and’, and concludes it with, “Oh, my mother just died.” reminded me of The Outsider by Albert Camus. Although the scene sports an easy demeanour, it is not easy in the least. I urge you to read Camus in order to appreciate why I say this about the writing of Jordan.

The creative canvas that Jordan Goldnadel draws up for Florent and Alessia who are shown at a crucial crossroad of their lives, very anchored in their generation, and are yet torn is an thought-provoking curve of human psychology. They ask – Who am I? What will I do with my life? Where will I live? Does the right person exist? Do I want what’s expected of me? Such questions do tend to assault us at various stages of our life. “What’s the use of falling in love if
 you both remain inertly as-you-
were?” Mary McCarthy asked her
 friend Hannah Arendt 
in their correspondence about love. A derivative of the same question is what Jordan undertakes to answer in Happy. These queries resonate the current state of the mind, because love, as someone once said, 
speaks to a central necessity of 
our life — at its truest and most
 potent, love invariably does 
change us by de-conditioning our 
painful pathologies and elevating 
us toward our highest human
 potential. Love tells us that  in the romantic ideal upon which our modern mythos of love is built, the solidity of that togetherness is taken to such an extreme so as to render love fragile, and when lovers are expected to fuse together so closely and completely, mutuality mutates into a paralysing co-dependency — a calcified and rigid firmness that becomes brittle to the possibility of growth. In the most nourishing kind of love, the communion of togetherness coexists with the integrity of individuality, the two aspects always in dynamic and fluid dialogue. The philosopher Martin Heidegger captured this beautifully in his love letters to Hannah Arendt: “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.”

The irony of modern life is that love stories have become horror stories and horror stories, love stories. Like the ageing Hollywood crowd, films are thin and flabby, in bad taste, ostentatious, vulgar. Either they are inadequately overdressed or expensively undressed. There was once a time when in Hollywood the houses began to become as plush as hotels, and yet the people who lived in these houses began to make hotels their residences. That is quite the difference between the American and European cinema, its experience. This is the point where one can almost hear the words of Mary Oliver echo – “All of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?”

In recent years, largely due to the uncertainty of the producers about what will draw the audience based more so on the fickleness of the audience, films at the very stage of scripting may shift several perspectives and may be finally cut into a product that is not appealing to the people who come to enjoy a film. This is where Happy was sombre and stylish. It was quite a rhythmical vision. The characters were developed without any highbrow pretentions. You got what you saw, and what you saw was quite the slice of an impersonal and abstract atmosphere, mixed with frankness about a film that took itself seriously.

Also, we live in times where the younger audience does not react to love on the screen. They are eternally distracted and talking amidst themselves, until of course ghastly images of blood and gore make them shut up and take notice. Why don’t they react to love one may ask? They don’t perhaps react to love because they are not used to the idea of love, they are married to their gadgets, they find a dopamine high in bursts of likes and shares on social media, and they are depressed when nobody reacts to their posts or their shares, and as an extension of such vacuous lifestyle choices the very idea of having to be in a real flesh and blood relationship makes them squirm with fright. What about the older audience then one may ask? The older audience on the other hand care less for the storyline. They go to the movies merely to watch the sex. So what happens to the rest – the intellectuals? Unfortunately, they are left with nothing, unless of course people like Jordan Goldnadel shape scripts like Happy that are packed with a profound sense of contemplation.

Television, and the internet, with all its breaks and cuts, and the inattention, except for action, and spinning the dial to find some conflict, is partly responsible for the destruction of the narrative sense – that delight in following a story through its complications to its conclusion, which is perhaps a child’s first conscious artistic pleasure. The old staples of entertainment – inoffensive genres like the adventure story, or the musical, or the ghost story, or the detective story are no longer commercially safe for moviemakers, and it may be that audiences don’t have much more than a TV span of attention left: they want to be turned on and they spend most of their time turning off. Something similar and related may be happening in reading tastes and habits too: teens have often read Salinger and some Orwell, Joyce maybe, and sometimes even Dostoyevsky, but they are not interested in the ‘classic’ English novels of Scott or Dickens, and what is more to the point, they don’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories or even the modern detective fiction that in the thirties and forties was an accepted part of the shared experience of adolescents. Perhaps they want much more from entertainment than the civilised, but limited rational pleasures of the genre pieces. And more likely, the box-office returns support this; they want something different. Audiences that enjoy shocks and falsifications, the brutal series of titillations, they want one thrill after another, don’t care any longer about the convections of the past, and are too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect. They want less effort, more sensations, and more knobs to turn.  

Sexuality is depicted in various films with an innate rationale, or imposed upon by time-tested, accepted ideologies. Happy is the only film where I found that the people who made love to each other did so without attempting to intellectualise it. As adults what we do with each other, regardless of the societal clichés or labels, is entirely up to us, and we are not obliged to offer anybody an explanation for it. Culture has mortared certain stubbornly trifling guidelines on us, and it judges us by those barren strictures, and this is where we must break that die and be undaunted by the world’s assessment of our actions. We must do exactly as our heart desires, because desires aren’t lead by intellect but by instinct, and instinct isn’t erroneous.

Actor and director Vladimir Perrin as Thomas is strong and opinionated. He can take to different ideas but is intolerable to assumed stupidity that branches from half-baked wisdom rather than from learning or experiences in Happy. Léa Moszkowicz as Marion is impressive as a friend. A Marion is needed, most urgently, in people’s lives, a life that is seeing the line blur between what friendship is, and how friendship ought to be. The camerawork of Jean Sotelo is appropriate for the tone of the movie. The music by Izzy Gaon is effective. The soundtrack includes some great Amanda Palmer songs and the surprise of surprises is the lilting number Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga by Rahul Dev Burman from our very own Indian film 1942: A Love Story.

When the final credits begin to roll, Happy leaves you with a feeling of pleasure and contentment, and one recollects Leo Tolstoy who said, if you want to be happy, be.