I first saw Vagabond years ago, when I was going through a dirty-on-purpose phase in college. Agnes Varda’s story of a wandering, or as one character put it, ‘withering’ vagrant struck a chord with me. As the years passed, I had forgotten some details of the film, but the sense of accutely-felt heartbreak and devastation has stuck with me. Seeing it again years later (and after having come to appreciate the value of a good shave) the film still resonates with me.
The film opens with the melancholic, distancing strains of a violin, a recurring motif which could serve as the musical definition for the word ‘descent’. In a chilly, mostly barren farm landscape, the corpse of Mona Bergeron is hidden from view. Once her lifeless body is revealed lying in a hole it appears as if blurred into the earth. Her face is smeared with dried red wine, and her clothes have collected enough dirt, that it’s difficult to tell where her body ends and the earth begins. The film then looks back to chronicle the final days of this earth-covered specter. Even before her life is snuffed out, she hardly stands out from the buildings she inhabits and the fields she drifts across. As the one brief intervention by a narrator suggests, in what I can only imagine are the words of Varda herself, for all we know, Mona might as well have ‘come from the sea’. She is of the earth, intimately tied to it and doomed to completely blend into it. Like the earth, she is just as easily taken for granted.
Mona’s travels are recounted by the people that she comes across in her travels. Often merely a passing thought as to what it might be like to be in her tattered shoes is all that occurs. It might be a classist indictment, a bourgie exoticization of her state, or an overly-romantic sympathizing with her plight. Whatever it is, everyone judges her, sums her up in their own way. While Mona exists as a different entity to all the people she comes across, she remains true to herself the entire time. She left her job, whatever life she had, we learn, to be free. Freedom, on her own terms. The film neither glamourizes nor looks down on her. It presents her story from as many vantages points as possible, knowing that somewhere amidst all of them, lies the truth. The film is shot almost entirely on a flat plain, leveling her with the landscape, as well as presenting everyone as existing on the same stage, despite whatever judgements anyone might use to seperate them from her.
In this eloquent examination of this woman’s life, Varda manages to refrain from sentimentality yet remains emotionally dedicated to her subject. In each meticulously orchestrated tracking shot, the camera terminates its movement before cutting away, echoing the fate of the protagonist. These finite shots may end on a sign post, a piece of machinery, a tree or people waiting at a bus stop, all things that exist outside of Mona’s trajectory, things that are paying no attention to her.
One tracking shot, as D claimed, ‘says it all’. The shot begins on some arbitrary street and tracks past Mona seated, minding her business, and continues on without stopping or even slowing to notice her. She is hardly there. I am reminded of Joan Fontain’s Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman. However, where in that film Louis Jourdan is the only one to have truly failed to notice her, in Vagaond, it’s the rest of the world that fails to take notice of Mona. Unlike Lisa, however, who devotes her unnoticed life to a man, Mona devotes herself to herself only. While she is hardly there for others to see, she is all there is as far as she is concerned.
A former philosophy professor and goat-herder, who ultimately deems Mona’s path as doomed, makes the observation, when she claims to not know what road she was on, that the road she is on is hers. She has to know what road she’s on. This raises the question, is Mona truly free? While she dismissed as many outside forces as she can (does she embrace anything?), she is not able to dismiss the cold winter air, her dehydration, her hunger. The only way she can be free of everything is by being freed from life, from the earth. I can’t help but find this heartbreaking, as I did nearly a decade ago. For some reason, all these years, one shot has remained in the forefront of my mind and it typifies this heartbreak for me. One of the lovers she picks up along the way, a Tunisian field hand, recalls Mona silently. Whereas most of the passersby describe their encounters with her through words, he simply smells the scarf that she left behind, a gesture that signifies not only his longing for her, but his appreciation for her physical presence on the earth. One need not be a vagabond to be accutely aware of how fleeting life is and transient we all are on this earth.
I have hardly addressed Varda’s expertly crafted telling of the narrative. She jumps around interspersing Mona’s linear arc to her untimely end with recollections from people she encountered seemingly at random, the way memories of someone you have come across can hit you when you don’t expect them to. The only distraction that I found was in one character who would pointedly address the camera when discussing Mona. It’s a tricky device, especially, since this character is often articulating finely noted observations of Mona. But in a film in which so much of the monochromatic mise-en-scene blends together, it stands out like, well, like a character talking directly to the camera in a film in which other characters don’t.
Vagabond has managed to never prey on my fears of being a degenerate the way that films like L’Enfant and Straight Time have, which are both great films, by the way. I take that as a testament to Varda’s choice of direction for her narrative. Mona’s plight is uniquely her own. The film is less about how pitiable she is, or how difficult her road is, and more about how we see her, or better put, can’t see her.
Vagabond is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.