France / 1985 / French

Directed by Agnès Varda

With Sandrine Bonnaire, Yolande Moreau, Setti Ramdane

Still from 'Vagabond'“She came from the sea,” Agnès Varda decides, because she doesn’t know where Mona came from. Well, no – she does have an idea, but the young woman’s origins are far-reaching, the manifold and barely acknowledged crevices in the attitudes of society. This film is not a social problem piece, and Varda does not spend her time speculating on causation. She prefers for the protagonist to remain an enigma to her, the object of fascination that drives this road movie of sorts, one with neither a horizon nor a point of departure. From the very start of the film we know that the homeless wanderer meets with an unhappy end; her frozen body is found at the bottom of a gully in a dormant vineyard, fallen as she was walking. But that ending – her being stopped, finally held in place by the world – is the beginning of her story, as the filmmaker looks back and invents the evidence of her journey through loose fragments.

Armored by a tattered leather jacket and saddled with her worldly possessions, Mona hitchhikes and walks through the winter-still, rural landscape. She slams truck doors on leering drivers, picks up a little bit of money doing odd jobs, and mostly survives on the kindness of random strangers. Over the course of her journeying she intersects with many different characters, some only briefly, who then go on to intersect with one another in tangential asides. Although she has breezed through their lives, she also sticks in their minds, surrounded by a mixture of pity and wonderment, even envy. They talk about their memory of her after she has left them, and gradually an alternate collage, formed of their viewpoints, materializes. And we see how the stationary life sees the traveler – they are another species, lost and incomprehensible. But they leave their imprint, no matter what. For her youth and beauty, Mona seems all the more sad to them. She has the self-possession and searching look that are accurate to the late-teenager, but the way she pushes out society makes their shows of compassion look hypocritical, their respect for her overwrought and vicarious.

Still from 'Vagabond'She has numerous relationships with men, including a fellow vagabond in what they think is a disused mansion. She spends a day with and captures the imaginations of, a respected tree expert and her assistant, the family of whom happens to own that mansion. She befriends and later aggravates the maid of said assistant, a woman whose loutish boyfriend robbed the mansion and scared Mona away. Aside from the characters swirling around this narrative pool and occasionally rising to the surface, there are variously amusing and depressing one-off encounters. She is taken into the rural homestead of a formerly bourgeois family living back-to-the-land, whose coats are all goat wool. They give her a trailer in which to sleep (that she fills with cigarette butts) and land to till (which goes decidedly untilled). “You don’t want anything,” the husband complains to her, and we get the sense that she has disillusioned him to rewards of freedom he thought she enjoyed. She gets swept up in a loose pack of fellow runaways, who loaf around the train station and squat in an abandoned house that catches fire and almost kills her. The most touching relationship she has is with an itinerant worker from Morocco, who shares his work, quarters, and food with her. He seems not out to exploit her, only to possess her and equally be possessed by her. This is welcome, as she is in a vulnerable place and sees little in the way of sharing. Most relationships on the road seem to be one-sided or hopelessly tilted. Perhaps this is why they always seem to fizzle unceremoniously.

The way in which Varda builds the story is tied intimately with her travels and research throughout the dreary areas in which the film is set. Her approach was as a journalist, but without an existing story that she is trying to flesh out. The fastidiousness and interest that she holds is always in evidence, as she tries to incorporate local characters, rhythms and atmospheres – not to replicate them per se, but to bring them to life before our eyes, in a manner that is assured and unforced. No matter that the proceedings meander, because they are focused on characterization and the shades of the landscape, which overlap and play off of each other in permanent communication.

Vagabond is in part devoted to notions of how storytelling can help us interpret the complexities of the real world, and also how an event can exist in a confluence of many different viewpoints. Varda multiplies her documentarian’s gaze across the varied and interrelated characters, either through conversations that they have or, in the style of an interview, speaking directly to the camera (brief asides, at times directly after their episode with Mona and at others, revisited later). It is as though she is using them to complete the image of what she wants to show, but is at the same time exposing their subjectivity, recognizing that testimony is always tinted in one way or another. She is at once strengthening and facing down the subjectivity that pervades non-fiction, in it from before the investigation phase even, in the preconceptions extant in the mind of the filmmaker. The self-conscious recreation of a documentary form is a nod in the direction of the film’s provenance, although Varda makes it clear early on that this is not derived from one event or person. The title character and her experiences are an amalgamation of observations, travels, discussions. (Although, it should be pointed out, one of the real-life vagabonds, a young woman who possibly served the most inspiration for the idea of Mona, appears toward the end of the film, as one of her train station acquaintances).

Still from 'Vagabond'The points at which Joanna Bruzdowicz’s score enters – icy, fluttering clusters of pained strings – are in the tracking shots that conclude the more visually-oriented scenes. At these times the camera moves with Mona before passing by her, the frame continuing without its character before settling on something else, something benign like a phone booth, a disused tractor, or the boughs of a tree. Discussing these shots, Varda refers to the importance of the objects at which she finds her stopping point, the end to motion. Their significance has two key elements: the very ordinariness of the objects, being part of the landscape and beyond the film’s artifice (already there when the crew arrived to shoot the scene and in all likelihood staying there afterward); and shifting the focus away from Mona, making her an ordinary part of the land as well. And there is something else, too, a reflection of the director’s visual conception of what is going on in the scene. Because there is a certain recoiling inherent in the camera’s movement away, a child’s refusal of looking that tries to evaporate what is going on in front of it. Thus Varda is, in a visual way, engaging with that part of her that feels sorrow or frustration with what she is showing, without fattening the narrative with spoon-fed pity or pointless contrivance. The gut reactions, the self-consolation that she shares with audience, and which she may find contemptible, are built into the image using these dolly shots, and exorcised, in a sense, by coolly and euphemistically forcing the eye astray.

Throughout so much of her work Varda seems to be reaching backward, highlighting the eccentric and outcast that is present in a contemporary milieu in order to commune with something that is elemental, the holdovers of a primitive and unseen France that continue to exist, and for which she is always looking out. We see this in the tender localness of her first film, La Point-Courte (1955), which cannot help but absorb the nearness and dearness of the fishing town where it was filmed. Naturally the countryside is her best bet, but even there the connections to a more wild landscape tend to be strange and unexpected. In her cinematic essay The Gleaners and I (2000), she looks at the very old and surprisingly widespread practice of picking through the refuse left by harvests, farmer’s markets, and various other points on the consumption chain. She sees this utilization of excess as somehow integral to the ecology of French culture, using her digital camera to capture glimpses of its modern incarnations, seemingly everywhere she looks as she travels on the road. Though sometimes beautified in art, the people (who really aren’t a single class of people at all) have had a dynamic relationship with the affluence on which they make their living.

As the title of that film suggests, Varda is eager to draw a connection between herself and them, something that she also does with Mona, in a sense, by correlating her with something present in the spirit and the identity of a broader culture, something eternal but not easy to pin down. The character is aligned with the past, then, while paradoxically being a modern creation. As we see aspects of her in the other, more stationary characters she meets (who equally form and reflect the environment), it becomes clear that her lifestyle is inherently and unmistakably French, encrypted into the people and landscape and seemingly coming out of a shadowed history like the Romani. Her existence blusters over society’s strictures but is not at all beyond its pale.

Still from 'Vagabond'Far from romanticizing her character’s existence, she is positing that the girl, as well as the others whom she comes across who are outside of mainstream society (and also those who are inside it, for that matter) somehow fit, one way or another, with the historical landscape, a place she physically and poetically explores even as it transforms before her eyes. Mona is not tied to a fixed image, even exploding any classic notion of the rich-in-spirit wayfairer, the jolly vagrant. Varda never pushes her protagonist over the cusp of victimization; the girl does become a victim, in specific instances throughout the film and in the big picture, but she has enough free agency not to come across as a reduced effigy. She has her chances, her invitations of human kindness, most of which she is not too closed by the filth and cold to accept, but she continues to move along in a constant state of rejection. There is something dead about her, a blankness that is nonetheless a telling reflection on how rough the world has been. We can see this in her inability differentiate a hustler’s exploitation from a liberal’s reaching out, as she is attracted by both – and both present a warm touch, food or drugs, so perhaps the difference doesn’t matter.

Knowledge of the protagonist’s death hanging over proceedings, Varda is free to inject the film with a profound understanding of violence through intimation, which is expressed without tickling or hammering with it. The violence explicit in wayfaring is at the same time implicit in the privileged world, as we see with Mona’s numerous brushes with so-called normalcy. There is a great deal of brutality there and most other aspects of her experience, like in the situation of the young couple, or the meanness of the seasonal workers. When Varda does give in to showing it – at one point a man sexually assaults Mona in the forest, in a scene that happens abruptly and without context, but even so, ends without us seeing the act itself – she cannot fall victim to the dialectical breakdown, the inevitable stupefaction that punctures the spell of some films and provides the (lack of) substance of yet others. Like in a life spent living rough, fear and malice are not submerged as they are with comfortable people but rather, hang in the air, form the very atmosphere around you.

In presenting the character of Mona to the audience, Varda avoids suggesting the tragedy of the free spirit, because the character never comes across as free. She avoids tradition, fidgets when given shelter, takes handouts without gratitude. Nonetheless she is part of an ever-widening and evermore existentially empty continuum of culture, the outer limits of a lineage of dropping out and scraping by unsentimentally. This is not very outlandish, Varda seems to be saying. But it is tradition (and by extension, fixity) that ultimately murders Mona. It’s not that she consciously ends her journey, but she runs afoul of ritual and the weight of male domination, and she, whose existence is a cry against all of that, is silenced at seventeen. The world cannot suffer a woman who breaks rules for very long. Yes she was accepting of the dangers, even courting them, but it is not enough to acknowledge that they are there without thinking about why they are there. With Vagabond, Varda celebrates the whirl of banality and strangeness in the countryside as she explores it, while at the same time condemning the overbearing attitudes, which, as frozen earth that traps all that is underneath, keep it held fast to its cosmic regulations.

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