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Vagabond (Agnes Varda) 1985

    Sandrine Bonnaire, the lead actress at the center of Agnes Varda’s mock-documentary Vagabond is one of my favorite French actresses. Her emotions aren’t always available to us on the surface level, so when they rear their head the impact is greatly magnified. Her ability to portray both utter intelligence (as in Rivette’s Secret Defense) and unknowable vacancy, as she does here, shows an uncommon deal of range. Mona, her character in Vagabond has dropped out of society for reasons left unstated. Every hint that we get is greeted with a contradiction. She openly states that she lies to the folks that she drifts by to entertain herself, and since the film opens by showing us her death by freezing, and then flashes back attempting to reconstruct a portrait of her from the accounts of those who barely knew her, many things are left indefinite. We search Bonnaire’s face for a hint at what lies beneath, but a misfit like Mona doesn’t exactly comply with our wishes.


    Over the course of a long winter in rural France, Mona’s nomadic wandering touches the lives of a surprising number of people. She is offered food and shelter at many junctures, and is just as often shooed away. Mona usually reacts to either greeting with the same thankless ambivalence. I personally found her societal dropout  terrifying and her slide toward destruction (chronicled by the increasing number of broken zippers that dot Mona's outfit) nearly unbearable, because it reminded me how precarious anyone’s ties to a civilized life are. Perhaps as a result of my personal horror, Varda surprised me with the modicum of dourness that she looked at Mona with. Adopting the noncommittal stance of a documentarian, despite the fact that this particular story is fictional, the director is as likely to show us the glimpses of joy that are found in this tale as the moments of misery. Friendship, romance, and a startling emotional openness all filter their way into this segment of Mona’s life. When a woman romanticizes her, we are forced to disagree, since we understand Mona’s eventual fate, but at the same time can understand where that notion comes from.


    The dominant emotional response to Varda’s documentary-like approach is the realization that in recounting their brush with the titular vagabond, each person interviewed actually reveals more about himself or herself than about Mona. Both their yearnings for affection and freedom and their prejudices come out when describing the protagonist. This communal storytelling device is similar to, but far more emotionally effective than, the one used in Citizen Kane, in which each interviewee conjectured about the meaning of “Rosebud”. By listening to how little or how much each person makes about their encounter with Mona, we seem to understand things that not even the narrators realize about themselves. Varda has an uncanny ability to turn a few seconds of dialogue from a non-actor into a moment soul-baring intensity. By proxy, it becomes clear that our personal response to Varda’s film is as individualized as each of the characters’ was to Mona. Since there are no obvious judgments made by the director, our opinion of the protagonist suddenly matters a great deal, and this allows our response to the film to tell us some profound things about ourselves. Taken strictly as the narrative of an unfortunately free young woman, Vagabond is heartbreaking. Taken as an examination of how we watch and react to the films (and the real people) that we see, it becomes transcendent.

**** Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman