The French director Agnes Varda has jocularly referred to her film Vagabond as Rashomona—a feminization of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which a single story is recounted from a number of different points of view.
Vagabond uses a similar sort of refraction to tell its story. In the opening sequence, a girl is found dead in a ditch. Apparently, she’s died of exposure during the cold night; it is an absurd, pointless, lonely death. The rest of the film consists of loose recollections by the people who knew her—mostly very slightly—during her last weeks.
Her name was Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire, giving the kind of extraordinary performance that does not seem to be a performance at all), a drifting, antagonistic, utterly lost young woman. She hitchhikes, bums cigarettes and food, works odd jobs. She accepts hospitality, is even generously befriended by a few strangers, but rarely repays it.
In her first scene, she’s given a ride by a truck driver who tells her that no one hitchhikes in the winter—nobody’s around. “But I am here,” she says. That statement of existential fact takes the place of any self-revelation: Mona simply exists, and will survive as long as she keeps moving.
Many of the people with whom she comes in contact are envious of her complete freedom. They see her as a Romantic ideal—the vagabond who hits the road, surviving, as the film’s original French title puts it, “Without Roof or Law.” Others are disdainful because she has no responsibilities, lacks courtesy, and even refuses to bathe.
Varda draws no judgments about this, a stance that seems to bother some filmgoers. The film is stubbornly like Mona, both in its editorial rhythms and its attitude. It moves along without imposing itself or telling you anything overt, but it touches you in unexpected, almost unconscious ways.
Varda’s visual scheme is weird and seductive. The French countryside that she captures in winter is both forbidding and poetic. Bony, bare trees and branches crop up everywhere, and abandoned concrete structures and rusted tractors litter the landscape.
That sounds pretty desolate. But Vagabond is a complex film, greater than the sum of its often bleak parts. In mysterious ways, it taps some deep longings about freedom and social behavior and the necessity to, above all, keep moving. The movie does not paint a very happy portrait of those things, but it does explore them in a persuasive, hypnotic way. I will remember this film for a long time.
First published in the Herald, 1986.
Superb movie. Sandrine Bonnaire was mostly unknown at this time, except for A nos amours and Police, but her performance was still something of a shock. Nice to see that Varda’s reputation has been on an upswing in recent years and that this movie hasn’t been forgotten.