VAGABOND (Sans toit ni loi) A
France (105 mi) 1985 d: Agnès Varda
France (105 mi) 1985 d: Agnès Varda
It’s all the rage these days to blur the lines between fiction and documentary films, where leading contenders Jia Zhang-ke or Ulrich Seidl frequently blend fiction, and even fantasy, into otherwise ultra realistic portraits of human behavior. In this manner they are extending the limits of understanding, pushing the boundaries of the imagination so it’s not simply a true life exposé, but more of a poetic composite, like personal glimpses pulled from a diary, becoming an inquiring essay on time, memory, and human compassion. Among the New Wave obsessions, particularly for Varda, was this grey area between fiction and documentary, often resulting in startling contradictions. Unlike many in the French New Wave, Varda’s artistic roots were in the realm of photography, using a photographic eye in the opening shot of pastoral farmlands and jarringly discordant classical music from Joanna Bruzdowicz, where VAGABOND begins with the discovery of a young girl found frozen to death in a ditch in the wintry farmlands of southern France, usually known for excessive sunshine. After the police determine it was natural causes, Varda’s own voice interrupts, explaining little is known about the young woman, where people offer typical reminiscences through a series of flashback sequences recalling the final three months of her life. These snippets from interviews reveal little about the young girl, often adding greater insight into the social mindset of the observer, as small prejudices about young girls out on their own looking for trouble are a commonly held view, or she’s angrily denounced as having no direction and no self worth, while some were disgusted by her smelly appearance, thinking that she needed a bath, while others found her defiant independence strangely liberating, but few ever asked or inquired into her motivation. In hindsight, some wished they had done more, yet few even remembered her name. Written and co-edited by Varda, the film uses a similar narrative structure as CITIZEN KANE (1941), where the devastation of growing old, filthy rich and dying alone in the comforts of one’s own bed is no less tragic than dying young, penniless, and alone in a ditch, ultimately succumbing to the frigid wintry elements.
Varda’s bleak and melancholy film plays out as a road movie, where people drift in and out of the life of Mona Bergeron, Sandrine Bonnaire at 17 in one of her most defiantly bold roles, a woman hitchhiking alone through the region in the cold of winter, working for scraps, scrounging for food, living outdoors in her tent where finding water is a daily concern. She only exists peripherally in the lives of others, many barely showing any concern whatsoever, as she’s simply one of many people encountered everyday that walk in and out of people’s lives with barely a thought to their existence. Never a fully realized character, yet the film raises the question about woman's freedom in such a naturally unassuming manner, a lingering question that punctuates every scene, expressed through a collection of fragmented impressions, where she remains aloof and detached, yet she unhesitatingly prefers it that way, having worked as a secretary, having to answer to a boss, feeling too confined and claustrophobic, preferring the freedom of the open road. Openly rejecting bourgeois comforts for the adventurous spirit of the unknown, her rebellious nature defines her views, as she refuses to be tied down by associations with others, yet openly displays her uninhibited charms for all to see, where she can be seen emerging naked from the sea in a long shot, nothing salacious, then striding confidently onto the sandy beach for her towel, spied upon by a couple of lecherous boys, yet leaving behind conventional sexual attitudes, fully in control of her own feminine sexuality. While enjoying a drink whenever possible, she also has an easygoing attitude about sleeping with guys, as well as smoking grass, where she can be seen joining in small groups of like-minded kids who hang out together for brief durations until they eventually each disappear into the night. We learn nothing of Mona’s past, as no one is allowed into her interior space, but she’s an intriguing example of those who consciously dropped out during the 60’s with a counterculture mentality, seeing the world without preconceived notions, opening her life to strangers, expressed through a unique tolerance of others, while challenging society’s traditional benefits like security and comfort, which she has little use for. Her indomitable spirit is built by achieving a supreme self-confidence, where she often defies description, yet she also remains isolated and alone, often vulnerable to savage male predators who see her simply as a target. VAGABOND develops a kind of tumultuous interior power that slowly creeps up on you, one that few movies can match, where Bonnaire’s blustery performance is itself a force of nature.
One of the more curious acquaintances is with Macha Méril as Mrs. Landier, a science research professor studying a spreading tree fungus epidemic caused by rotting ammunition crates left behind by American soldiers during WW II. But rather than take an interest in her career, Mona grows more content sitting in the front seat of her car, playing the radio, smoking cigarettes, eating the food and many treats offered to her, even a bottle of champagne that Mrs. Landier pilfers from a local celebration. Making herself at home, it appears she may never leave, and by the time she’s dropped off at the side of the road, Mrs. Landier only regrets she couldn’t do more. She makes a commitment to work in the fields for awhile, pruning the overgrown branches in the massive vineyards under the tutelage of a friendly Tunisian immigrant, but when the rest of the Moroccan migrant worker team arrives, they refuse to work with a woman, especially sharing sleeping quarters, forcing her back out on the road. Perhaps the most amusing segment is meeting a frustrated housesitter named Yolande (Yolande Moreau) that looks after a senile elderly woman, Aunt Lydie (Marthe Jarnias). While Yolande steps out for a minute, Mona makes herself at home and drinks cognac with the elderly woman, where the two laugh the afternoon away making fun of her family that can’t wait for her to die so they can have her house, exuding a special vulnerability and warmth not seen in the rest of the picture until the more serious, rule-oriented Yolande returns to put a stop to their fun, sending her packing back out onto the road again. The beauty of the film is hearing the full range of interview comments, but also having the ability to judge for ourselves, as we’re able to see brief vignettes of her life. What’s ultimately confounding is Mona’s insistence upon defying better judgment, moving from one travesty to the next, where her life seems to slowly erode before our eyes until she becomes the walking dead. One can’t help but think of Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), perhaps his bleakest film, a portrait of a young adolescent lost to an unsympathetic world, but Mona is surrounded by natural splendor, where the camera has a habit of panning over a vast landscape before Mona walks into the frame, where she remains off to the side, seen as a small, lingering presence in a much larger world around her. In one of the earliest scenes, she’s given a ride by a truck driver who tells her that no one hitchhikes in the winter when there’s literally nobody around. “But I am here,” she tells him, which may as well be her mantra until her final breath. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival and a Best Actress César for Bonnaire, the film’s original French title translates to “Without Roof or Law,” a hint into the short-lived freedom associated with the days of youth, where a drifting aimlessness becomes the only appropriate response to an aimless society.