Agnès Varda, acclaimed french director, is well known for her work which began just before the French New Wave and continued throughout her life. Her films often deal with women’s issues, but she does not restrict herself to documentary or fiction when exploring these topics. Instead, she has made documentaries, fiction films, and even blended the two, into seamless pseudo-documentaries. These films use documentary style to tell a fictional story.
One notable example of Varda’s pseudo-documentary is Vagabond (1985), the story of a girl who has forsaken the comforts of a permanent home in favor of the freedom of the road. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Mona, the main character of the film. Mona is a mysterious girl whose body has been discovered in a ditch. The experimental choice to begin after the death of the main character sets the tragic tone of the film from the very beginning. From that moment on, it is impossible to forget the fate of Mona, as Varda constructs an episodic series of flashbacks.
The main structure of the film is like that of a documentary. People who knew Mona give short interviews, talking to the camera about their experiences and interactions with the headstrong girl. These interviews are inter-cut with flashbacks to the actual events. Through this unusual structure, Mona is quickly brought to life.
Each of the people who interact with Mona form judgments and expectations about who she is and what she should or shouldn’t do. As the film progresses, however, Mona defies all of these expectations. Her goal is to be free of these responsibilities, and completely independent. She appears to some people as lazy, selfish, or even romantic, but she does not concern herself with how people perceive her. Mona’s freedom is her most prized possession, and she makes it clear that she will not give it up for anything.
Although the people around her often treat her with indifference or cruelty, the film chooses to focus much more on those who treat her with some sort of kindness. These are the people who are the most qualified to tell her story, even though we only receive it through the lense of their judgement. Still, even those who give her food or lodging expect something in return, whether it be a change in her behavior or something more material. Mona seems to understand this, and so she never gets too comfortable. As soon as she realizes that someone might be trying to restrict her freedom, she leaves without too much thought.
Varda’s storytelling is as engaging as it is unconventional, and as the film progresses and Mona’s plight becomes more and more tragic, it is impossible not to sympathize with her. Mona’s lifestyle is a shockingly realistic portrayal of freedom and its cost. Anyone who has ever felt wanderlust will understand Mona’s motivations, but watching the film feels like staring off the edge of a cliff and realizing how easy it would be to jump. Mona’s downward spiral is harrowing because it illustrates the consequences of pure freedom, which can be incredibly tempting.
Although there are aspects of Mona’s story and character which are meant to be universally visceral and uncomfortable, Mona’s story is also about the way the world treats women specifically. The men who meet Mona almost all attempt to frame their relationship around Mona’s utility to them as a woman. Even the casual or friendly relationships hinge around the men’s perception of her as desirable. Varda, known for her feminist film-making, creates a shocking indictment of the way men think about their relationships with women, and what Mona must do in an attempt to free herself from these power imbalances. Mona often leaves the men in her life shocked that she would abandon them, even though they no longer have anything to contribute to the relationship. To contrast these unhealthy relationships, Varda includes a moment of commiseration. Mona and a wealthy old lady share a drink and discuss the lady’s nephew who is kind to her in an attempt to get a good inheritance. The people around them do not see them as intrinsically valuable, and they both know it. This commonality allows them to share a moment of bitter joy, laughing at the injustice which has led them to each other. This is perhaps the most authentic relationship in the film because neither side expects anything from the other.
Vagabond is a masterpiece of socially conscious cinema. It is a movie that I highly recommend despite its bleak premise. Agnès Varda’s work is still incredibly relevant, and the character of Mona will not be forgotten anytime soon. Vagabond is available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.