directed by SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ Canada 62 minutes
Towards the beginning of Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Maison du bonheur, Juliane Sellam (the focus of the documentary) explains the reasoning behind her early morning routine consisting of watering the vibrant blooms of verdant bundles that are her geraniums, arraigned in hanging pots as a greatly thriving terrace garden; which is that, in order, to ensure that no pedestrians passing-by underneath her majestic floating garden gets drenched from the falling excess of water.
This simple descriptive overview of a seemingly minor daily activity plays a large role in setting the tone for the film, while also establishing several distinct character traits in the film’s main subject, Juliane Sellam, that will inevitably reemerge through the duration; through the process of this small chore Juliane’s care and attention are front and center considering her flowers’ staggering abundance of beauty. One of the first things she tends to is her plants with her considerate nature being one of the main reasons, as not to inconvenience any passersby, which points to her capacity for selflessness as her plants and her neighbors take precedence over herself.
Maison du bonheur is a relatively straightforward documentary as it simply focuses on Juliane as she converses about various aspects of her life, past and present. Though, Bohdanowicz does include a dash of experimentation in the film’s structure, enough to liven up the subject, as the audio of day-to-day routines and reminiscences are overlaid upon accompanying visuals, although, in unsynchronized fashion. It is very simply two people engaging one another, a sit-down exploration of one’s life (with the questioning side removed). Although, the complexities of the film are hidden underneath that veneer of simplicity.
Even in the initial stages of production, included with footage of Bohdanowicz packing and preparing for the trip while touching upon her open-ended plans for the film, she essentially admits that she doesn’t necessarily know the desired outcome of the project. She seems to be creating this documentary on a whim, as something to occupy her time while staying in Paris unknowingly capturing this rich tapestry of an individual. The project appears to coalesce along the way with Bohdanowicz examining and discovering the film’s shape concurrently as focus and meaning become clearer to the viewer and the director simultaneously.
As a whole, Maison du bonheur is a profile of Juliane, a glamorous astrologer with an impeccable green thumb, with separate snippets of autobiography compiled to create that whole. It is, at once, a morning ritual run through and a beauty regiment walkthrough; it is a bread-making tutorial; a prolonged praising of a personal stylist; a toast to siblings; fond remembrances of a late husband; the histories of a mentor and a career in astrology. The facets of a rich life, both large and small, assembled together as a living testament of a life once lived – still being lived, like a cinematic photo album with records of people, places, and things in one’s life.
It is not just a matter of Juliane recounting memories and routines, though. She chooses to allot herself and those within her life equal footing. While some of her dialogues could be described as superficial facets of her life – beauty products, shoes, etc. – she counterbalances those monologues with glowing assessments of those she loves. She is genuine in adoration of those closest to her with a continuous supply of compliments and praises. It is that thoughtfulness and selflessness established at the beginning that continues to crop up again and again.
That same love and concern is showcased through several voicemails left for Bohdanowicz, reiterating her thoughtfulness. Despite the director’s continued efforts to remain unseen and detached from the film’s proceedings, little by little she is coaxed into the film’s confines by her subject. Thus, becoming entwined with the film itself until she, herself, becomes the focal point, replacing her subject in a contemplative repositioning of evaluation, of her role and her film.
Juliane’s warmth is what pulls people in, a certain radiance to her being that is on display in nearly every frame (and reciprocated in the lighting of the 16mm frames); brightness abounds because of her cheerful face brimming with happiness and joy. You can even hear it in her voice. She is not necessarily a highly important and/or influential individual yet considering the din of documentaries focused on inconsequential subject matter or the plethora of biographical pictures that litter cinema these days, why not focus on an ordinary person with such an unending capacity for love and care.
Through the course of Bohdanowicz’s endeavor, she finds herself in varying stages of uncertainty. At the beginning, with what the project will be and become, and towards the end as insecurity in her profiling begins to take hold. She appears to quell her doubts by coming full circle, back to the geraniums suspended on the terrace, in an ending bit of abstraction by capturing the early morning routine from asphalt level; the excess water speckling along with the inadvertently expelled petal pieces signifying the pieces and fragments of a larger, magnificent whole. A beautiful, fitting visual analogy of the preceding exercise.