Some Thoughts on Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond”

Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), is a 1985 film by the Belgian director Agnès Varda. Varda was part of the French New Wave (with Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette), although her first film predates that movement; some critics regard her as belonging more specifically to the simultaneous Rive Gauche (Left Bank) movement (alongside Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and others). Like all of those directors, Varda’s career outlasted the end of the Nouvelle Vague (c1967); her most recent film is The Beaches of Agnès (2008) (which I think the world of).

Since Beaches there’s been a growing consensus among film critics that Varda is one of our greatest directors, and that she’s been until now too overlooked, too overshadowed. The Criterion Collection recently released four of her major features (as well as a few shorts); that set includes Sans toit ni loi, Varda’s most successful and arguably greatest film.

I haven’t seen all of Varda’s films, and I’m no authority on her work, but I’ve been watching her movies since the late 1990s, and I’m now steadily (re-)making my way through what’s available. At the moment, Sans toit ni loi is my favorite film of the 1980s, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on it. (But beware of the spoilers after the jump!)

First, a brief synopsis.

The film opens with the discovery of a young woman’s body (Sandrine Bonnaire) in a ditch; she froze to death overnight (it’s wintertime). Curiously, her clothes have been soaked through with wine. From there, Varda proceeds to recount what events led to the woman’s passing. She addresses us directly in voiceover:

No one claimed the body… She had died a natural death without leaving a trace… But people she had met recently remembered her. Those witnesses helped me tell of the last weeks of her last winter. She left her mark on them… I know little about her myself, but it seems to me that she came from the sea.

The remainder of the film is a mixture of drama (the woman’s encounters) and interview (brief statements made about her by the people she encountered). We learn that her name was Mona, and that she was a vagabond. [The French title, Sans toit ni loi, literally means “without roof or rule,” and is a pun based on the idiom “sans foi ni loi” (“without faith or law”). I don’t know if that also means “vagabond” in French, but I doubt it.]

Kane’s nurse rushes in to check on him.

Like in Citizen Kane (which this film is indebted to), we begin with a death that launches an investigation. (Several characters address the camera directly, and we can imagine that they are answering not only Varda’s questions, but a police inspector’s.) The investigation leads us full circle, and by the end we know more than any single character does, but we might still wonder if anything has really been revealed. (Also, in this case there’s no Rosebud—just no trespassing.)

Another difference between the two films is that while Varda shows us the circumstances that led Mona to her death, she refuses to show us that actual death. (Mona lived alone, and she could only ever die alone.)

What, then, do we learn?

Mona is also much dirtier than Wendy.

Mona is a very self-absorbed character. She fends primarily for herself. (Unlike her fellow traveler Wendy, she doesn’t have a dog.) When she meets new people, her first impulse is to see what she can get from them. When she’s shown kindness, she usually abuses that trust: she abandons her boyfriend of the moment when he’s attacked, and she repays a generous family of goat herders by loafing and stealing from them. She’s also suspicious and rude (although in real life she’d have to be: later in the film, she’s not wary enough, and she ends up getting raped).

At the same time, we quickly realize that Mona is perceived too unfairly by those around her. The people she meets have oversimple (and usually negative) impressions of her. Despite being filthy and abrasive, Mona is at times very kind and gentle. In my favorite scene, she spends a few hours getting drunk with an elderly woman (Marthe Jarnias) whom no one else has time or patience for:

Unlike Mona, this woman has an elaborate house and great wealth. But like Mona, she exists on the outskirts of society. She can ring her bell, but her servant answers only out of duty, exasperated. And her relatives visit only to patronize her, all the while waiting for her to die. (Later in the film, having grown too impatient, they fire the servant, send the old woman to a nursing home, and take over the house.)

In scenes like this one, we see Mona at her most sympathetic. She has no tolerance for the falsities by which society regularly operates. (See William Gass for more on this. Or Holden Caulfield.)

The film’s meditative and measured form provides Varda with a corrective for assumption and easy impression. Her camera remains fairly objective, favoring long shots that observe Mona, neither romanticizing her nor criticizing her. And as this perceptive analysis points out:

In Cléo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda made frequent use of tracking shots to follow Cléo along Parisian streets, and she does a lot of the same kind of camerawork in Vagabond. But while the narcissistic Cléo is nearly always in the center of the frame, Vagabond‘s protagonist […] can barely stay in the picture. Again and again, she either walks into the frame of an already-in-motion tracking shot, or falls behind, or walks out of frame as the camera keeps moving. It’s as though she is on the periphery of her own movie.

Cléo:

Mona:

Nor does Varda romanticize or criticize the other characters; she holds, I think, a mixture of criticism and sympathy toward everyone involved (herself included). (One of the strongest aspects of Varda’s work has long been her willingness to self-criticize, and to turn her camera back on herself. See for instance Beaches, or the end of this clip from The Gleaners and I, 2000.)

In certain ways, Vagabond is a realist film. The characters and events are verisimilar, and Varda’s method is at times documentary-like (a style she’s favored since the beginning of her career).

Varda, however, is unwilling to claim any privileged knowledge of Mona; as she told us at the outset, “I know little about her myself.” And indeed, the entire film is a fiction, although one based on fact: Varda was inspired to write and direct it after encountering a vagabond young woman (who has a cameo).

In other words, despite her film’s apparent objectivity, Varda is well aware that hers is just another opinion—and a fictional opinion at that. And Varda is very aware that she’s making a film. Like all of her work, the style is self-conscious: characters address the camera, the narrative is epsodic and sporadic, and the whole film is rather elegantly photographed and composed. Here as elsewhere, Varda is never afraid to draw classical allusions to other works—she’s clearly modeled her film on Kane, one of the best-known movies ever made. And the early image of Mona emerging from the sea begs for (ironic) comparison to Botticelli. (Gleaners is an extended meditation on how the poor are depicted in painting.)

Existing somewhere between realism and a self-conscious formalism, Vagabond is extremely cathartic. (Thinking about this film always makes me cry, and you should see how I bawl when I watch it.) And yet you can’t claim, by the end, as some realist might, that anything’s been proven, or even demonstrated. Varda has no interest in psychologizing Mona, or in explaining why she lives her life the way she does. The work as a whole rejects moralizing, and simple summary. (If you want to boil it all down to a single message, then it might be that Mona doesn’t deserve her fate. But who does?)

Varda’s invitation that we compare Vagabond with Citizen Kane is illuminating in many ways. Is Kane a realist film? A formalist film? Illuminating? Opaque? …It’s a mixture of all of those things (as well as tragic, and deeply entertaining). Kane is extremely stylized and episodic, but it also achieved significant breakthroughs in makeup and deep focus, two tools of verisimilitude. (Welles wanted to show ceilings because films never showed ceilings.) And Kane channels its considerable energy into a very serious attempt to tell the story of a man’s life, from many different perspectives, even as it acknowledges that such an attempt must (being artifice) always fail.

Agnès Varda herself, while remaining her own remarkable director, reminds me a lot of Orson Welles. Like Welles, Varda started out working in one field (here photography), then switched while still young to directing, then proceeded to direct films her entire life. She has worked with whatever funding and materials she’s had at hand. Her career has gone up and down. She’s won awards, but her work has also been ignored.

She’s made art using a wide variety of media (photography, performance, installation). And like Welles, her career can’t be easily summarized. Varda has made dozens of films (the IMDb lists forty-six, a mixture of features and shorts), but what is the quintessential Varda film? (One reason why critics have had difficulty recognizing her greatness is that she defies category.)

Also like Welles, Varda makes deeply earnest films that move us, but that also reserve space for criticism—as well as entertainment, even frivolity. Consider how she interrupts Cléo to show us an absurd short film, Les Fiances du Pont Mac Donald (starring Jean-Luc Godard, Ana Karina, and Eddie Constantine):

And Vagabond, despite its weighty subject matter and tragic ending, is hardly a depressing film.

Finally, like Welles, Varda’s vast erudition, energy, formal playfulness, and open-mindedness allow her to synthesize many styles and traditions—including realism and self-conscious artificiality—to continually reexamine and refresh her art.

Which is great art. Vagabond offers an excellent place to begin watching her.

P.S. Be sure to check out this wonderfully terrible trailer for the film:

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20 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond”

  1. I loved the red scarf moment in VAGABOND, and I hated that it began with a voiceover that never happened again. It’s been a while since I saw this, but I was on the whole not as taken as I’d hoped.

    • The time is always ripe to rewatch it. Especially now that there’s that nice new DVD of it.

      When I first saw Varda’s work a little over ten years ago, I liked it, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

      I’ve had a very different reaction now, revisiting her.

      Although it can go both ways, I guess. Not like there’s just one opinion about anything.

      • I should add that I think Varda’s work gets better the more you watch her films next to one another. She’s that kind of director where I think it’s best to watch maybe three of her films together, than one here or there.

        That’s because there’s so much diversity between her films. I think of Welles the same way. So, for instance, Cleo gets even more interesting when watched next to Vagabond, and vice versa. Or next to Kung Fu Master. And so on.

        Gleaners makes all of her other films very, very interesting.

        Chris Marker works similarly.

        • This comment is on the mark (as was the post itself). I was lucky enough to catch a Varda festival at Film Forum after “Gleaners” came out and found each film to be a key to the others.

  2. That was nice to see the trailer. Great post. Varda’s now in her eighties and still so full of life; I can’t wait to see her works to come.

    • I’ve seen it written in some places that she said BEACHES would be her last film, but I’ve seen it written in other places that she has no intention of stopping. I tend to believe the latter; I can’t picture her not working.

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  7. A mathematician friend of mine used to say that “nothing is more interesting than nothing.” That insight is the only one that can explain the attraction that anyone has to “Vagabond.” The Times review of this film refers to the principal character’s “mysterious” face. I think that Occam’s razor – which posits that the simplest explanation is typically the correct one – can be applied here to describe the character not as mysterious but simply as cold as a glass eye. The Times review says that “at times, Ms. Varda is jarringly blatant.” I’m confused. Isn’t that the sign of a bad movie. And how about the arty pretentiousness of the voice over? “It seemed to me she came from the sea.” The Times reviewer also notes that Miss Varda “forces us to respond to externalities,” just like every car crash movie ever made. There is one good thing about “Vagabond” from a certain perspective. The way it is put together makes for an easy lecture to a film class. It is hard not to wonder if that is not what this is all about.

    • Thanks for reading the post and commenting. I have to respectfully disagree about Vagabond, though. It’s held my attention and affection across several viewings. Mona Bergeron remains inscrutable, true, but she’s not entirely cold. At times she’s joyful and warm, even while at other times she’s selfish and nasty. Sandrine Bonnaire infuses the character with a great deal of complexity. Above all I think Varda is asking that we try extending empathy toward a difficult creation. I find that a valuable experience; the world could use more empathy. And we ourselves are often as difficult as Mona.

      I’ve never understood blanket criticisms like “Ms. Varda is jarringly blatant,” as though being blatant were always, as you argue, “the sign of a bad movie.” It cheapens cinema as an art form to insist on one correct way of making films. The question rather is whether any given thing works within the particular film that contains it. (I’m pretty holistic when it comes to judging art.) I think everything in Vagabond combines well to make it the unique film it is.

      As for whether the film makes for good lectures, I dunno; it depends on the lecturer? But if you’re implying that the only reason that I and others like it is because it’s a good film to teach and/or write about, I find that a shallow argument (apologies, though, if I’ve misunderstood your point). I genuinely love the film, which is what prompted me to write about it. And I’ve always found distasteful the argument that others love the things they love for cynical reasons. The empathy that Varda invites us to apply to Mona might also be applicable to our fellow viewers, and even film critics.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  8. I just watched a film called La Strada, does anyone else see the parallels between La Strada and Vagabond?

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s been a decade or more since I last saw <i<La Strada, so my memory’s too fuzzy to really say. Of course both films feature a lot of walking along roads :)

      Were there some particular connections you saw? Would love to hear.

      Cheers,
      Adam

      • In the context of lone-female-wanderer, Mona would be the jean jacket and less eccentric remodelling of Gelsomina. In particulars: I can almost say that the parallels between Strada and Vagabond in terms of the sea is intentional (although nothing I’ve read suggests that Varda got any inspiration from Fellini). Gelsomina was referred to couple of times as a vagabond most relative was when her death was revealed by someone who she came in contact with (also, the person said they found Gelso by the sea). Although there isn’t extensive reasons to believe there are intentional parallels between the two films, both really do give me the sense of vulnerability of a thin nerve about to be torn at any moment. Mona’s character is unique because it is not typical for a female to be the lone wanderer. That’s the same with Gelso, and Fellini points out the vulnerability through physical abuse, so does Varda (rape?). I think if Dziga Vertov made a version of La Strada, you’d get Vagabond – like a documentary version. On a side note, am I the only one who was absolutely torn by La Strada? What resonated with me, and what I feel also with Vagabond, is that existentialist fist clenching around an almost innocent and naive heart (more Gelso than Mona). The moment in Vagabond that captures this for me is Mona’s response to the question of having direction: “I just move”. In Strada, Gelso’s gut wrenching: “Why am I on this earth”. Lastly, both of them seem to justify their existence not by being an end in themselves but fitting into someone else’s socket. Gelso with Zampano and Mona with the old woman among others. I could go on and on about La Strada, never before has a film penetrated me as much as La Strada (except maybe La Vita e Bella – coincidentally Italian)…. it’s just powerful. Thanks for the response.

      • Also: If you’ve seen a film by Japanese director, Irokazu Koreeda, called Air Doll. The same existentialist wanderer theme is well demonstrated

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