• Vagabond

    By Sandy Flitterman-Lewis

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    Vagabond has been called Agnès Varda’s Ulysses, and with good reason. The comparison with James Joyce’s era-defining epic novel extends well beyond a recognizable similarity between the two artists. Both writer and filmmaker occupy vanguard positions in the history of their respective forms, each bringing an experimental vitality to his and her work that affirms the social dimension of art. Just as Joyce attempted to describe contemporary consciousness by reworking the Homeric foundation of modern culture, so does Varda model her simple tale-—of a woman’s place in today’s complex and unresponsive world—on that seminal document of modernist cinema, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

    “If you tell the story of Citizen Kane,” Varda has said, “it’s not much of a story. An old rich mogul man is dead. He said a word we don’t understand. We don’t discover so much, just some pieces of his life and finally it is just a sled. Is that a story? It is not much. So what makes Citizen Kane so interesting is the way [Welles] told us about the man—intriguing us about what people think about him.” And, with as much perversity as playfulness, Varda gives us the total inversion of Welles’ masterpiece in Vagabond: a young, poor vagrant woman is dead. She died in a way we don’t understand. We don’t discover so much, just some pieces of her life and finally it is just a pagan ritual of the vine.

    This thin armature of a plot, “not much” in terms of the kind of action we are increasingly subjected to on the movie screen, becomes the deep structure around which Varda paints a vivid, engaging portrait of the texture of daily life in modern France. Through the range of people that Varda’s heroine Mona encounters in the last few weeks of her life (people of all classes, from foreign workers to centuries-old peasant families, from professional women and men to shopkeepers, construction workers, and truckdrivers, from young business people on the make to social marginals of all ages), and through the variety of places that Mona’s journey takes her (from Arab migrant workers’ vineyard housing to a goat farm run by university dropouts, from an abandoned 17th century mansion-turned-playground for stoned hippies to a professional conference in a well-heeled suburban hotel), we learn a documentary lesson about contemporary society while we discover new insights about ourselves and the cultural and subjective attitudes that shape us.

    Yet Varda is not content to simply present us with a ready-made world. Directly related to the specific attention to local detail in each of Mona’s encounters is the implicit demand for our own opinions as viewers. And, through Varda’s brilliant mix of documentary and fiction, our own thoughts and suggestions seem to be treated as if we, too, were actual participants in Mona’s world. (This strategy of interweaving “real” events and places with constructed fictions of both character and plot has been central to Varda’s work since her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1954), which literally inaugurated the French New Wave by antedating both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (both 1959) by several years.) Each “witness” who remembers Mona has a story to tell, but the line between actual French people and actors playing characters is always ambiguously drawn. Mona herself is based on a young vagabond whom Varda met on the road (she even has a small role in the film), while many of Mona’s experiences are evidence of Varda’s inventive artistry. Yet Varda is always conscious of the precarious balance between fact and fiction in a medium that can only exist by virtue of the spectator’s imagination. From her single voiceover address to the viewer (that sets into place the parameters by which to investigate Mona’s life) to her assertion of the writer’s hand in the opening credits of the film (Cinécrit par Agnès Varda), the director makes it clear that while what we see looks like reality, our engagement with it requires, as do all works of art, our imaginative capability and a sense of respect. And while the film has the casual quality of a travelogue or a loosely-sketched portrait, it provides many opportunities for serious thought. For this reason, in this perplexing, disturbing, and ultimately unexplainable film, there are moments of pure grace, dazzling and unexpected instances of the sublime that make Vagabond, rather than a cynical invitation to drop out, a Whitmanesque celebration of everything human.

    Sandy Flitterman-Lewis is the author of To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema (1990), as well as numerous articles and anthology chapters on feminist theory, film, and cultural studies.

3 comments

  • By Matt Dubuque
    April 27, 2013
    04:03 PM

    What truly lovely and wonderful film, with superb editing, cinematography and acting. I love how in the first 12 minutes so many of the dolly shots back out of the action, as the story unfolds backwards in time, told in a reverse manner and zoom out fashion reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu's finest films. The cut on action at 1:25 is one of the finest I've ever seen. A beautiful, loving masterpiece reminiscent as well of Les Miserables.
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  • By Anshuman
    January 04, 2014
    03:57 AM

    Recenly saw it. Extremely haunting,this study in anarchism. Makes one question the way we live.
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  • By JP Bailey, MA
    April 22, 2014
    10:48 PM

    I see it as a lesson for the depressed-artist type personality. Mona says several times, "I don't care" and has unrealistic expectations of her life, tries to make people who have more/worked for more, guilty that she has little. Several times she is seen as lazy and not wanting to work for more, even though work is offered to her several times. I was a little surprised that the rape in the woods didn't affect her more. Or maybe it did and that is what led her on to more destructive wandering and not caring... I also see this as a lesson in how the other personality types view her/this type. Some people are looking down on her, disgusted, some are loving her, some envy her. Yet they are all caring about her or wanting something from her in some way. Mona, in her Vegabond way simply doesn't care either way. This film is for deep thinkers (the depressed/artist type 4 in Enneagram personality theory) and for people who don't understand them. It leaves you with questions and wanting more. Will she keep wandering until something "happens" to her or will she decide one day to make something happen? My guess is she will fall in love. But sadly we already know she doesn't make it as many of this type don't when they are young and don't understand themselves, other people and their motives or how life works in terms of basic survival and work or serving others. She's still too self-absorbed and critical and rejecting of such an "ordinary" life, which is how type 4's feel. Yet, in her natural state she is interesting, fun to be around, good company and beautiful. She doesn't complain much and doesn't tell stories of woe or seem to feel sorry for herself and her circumstances, she just is. The bad part of women's rights is that they forgot to tell young women to protect themselves more in their freedoms. The goat farmer-philosopher seems to be the only one who "gets" her and what her real problem is and also why society doesn't get her or know how they could have helped. It's a risky thing to give in to 'not caring', its dangerous, and as we now know so well, deadly. I am now officially in love with French movies.
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