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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.