Film

“Maison du Bonheur” Isn’t Just a Doc About Life With a Charming Parisian — It’s a Vacation

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Fittingly, in place of a title card at the start of her 16mm delight Maison du Bonheur, Canadian independent filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz offers up a shot of a welcome mat. “Maison du Bonheur” it reads, inviting us into the home and the film. The former belongs to Juliane Sellam, a charming, chatty, vivacious astrologer who has lived in the same apartment in Paris’s Montmartre district for half a century. The latter is Bohdanowicz’s hourlong assemblage documenting a July visiting Sellam, studying her routines, taking in her talk, marveling at the gardenias in the windows, the blooms as dazzling as the July 14 fireworks we’ll see later.

The film is a portrait of a woman, 77 at the time of filming, and her home, dedicated to processes — behold Sellam’s recipe for bread for Shabbat — and striking still-life shots. Here are fruit and herbs in bowls before an open window, a breeze easing through them; here are the fashionable Sellam’s pumps and heels, a collection Galapagan in abundance and variety. Sellam speaks with enthusiasm as she waters her flowers, bakes a cake, gets her nails and hair done, or gives Bohdanowicz an astrological reading. She explains about how she refuses to leave the apartment without makeup, how much she loves not having had plastic surgery, how her late husband would buy her three or four pairs of shoes at a time. We see old photographs of Sellam in smashing gowns and watch her snack with her sister, both of whom must be gently told, when toasting each other for Bohdanowicz, not to look at the camera. (That camera: a hand-cranked Bolex.)

Bohdanowicz undertook the project without having previously met her subject, but for both the filmmaker and her audience, making Sellam’s acquaintance proves a rare pleasure. The cozy blissfulness of Bohdanowicz’s study might be suggested by a consideration of the film’s two moments of tension. One comes late, when Bohdanowicz has left the maison for a day trip to a Normandy beach, not far from a town where she once had lived, quite unhappily; on this excursion, she gets caught in the rain and shoots its glum patter on the sidewalk. (Sellam calls as Bohdanowicz schleps home on the bus, checking whether the filmmaker will make it back in time for dinner.)

That rainstorm is the darkest occurrence in the film, but Bohdanowicz does capture one brief moment of anxiety. Early on, Bohdanowicz, a stranger and guest and filmmaker, tells us in a filmed diary that she suspects that Sellam has heard the previous diaries she has shot late at night. You might tense up, as I did, at the thought of her host and subject listening in on Bohdanowicz’s own processes, on both her acclimation to sharing Sellam’s life and her thoughts on how best to capture it all. But rest assured, it’s one that something sweet comes of: What Sellam seems to have heard was Bohdanowicz lamenting that on this trip to Paris, she had not yet found an excellent pastry. Her host, the next day, remedies this, and it’s both delightful — and a little cruel — that Sellam gives us so much time to regard the dessert in question.

Maison du Bonheur
Directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz
Opens August 24, Metrograph

 

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