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!)
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.]
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 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.
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: