Vagabond (Ni Toit ni Loi) Agnes Varda (1985; Fr) Sandrine Bonnaire
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle 12 June 22; ticket: £7
La France profonde
As at the end so it is at the beginning. Agnes Varda’s script for Vagabond starts with the death of ‘Mona’ her vagrant drifter, frozen to death in a ditch. The movie then re-calls fragments of her life and the episodes immediately leading up to her demise, the demise of a woman. As the picture of her life is assembled, the various characters she’s met comment straight to camera both on Mona and their impression of her, creating an effect that has both a reflective and judgemental quality.
Thinking about Varda’s choice of nomenclature for ‘Mona’. The name was surely chosen to stand in ironic counterpoise to the most famous ‘Mona’ of all, Mona Lisa.
This portrait is Da Vinci’s depiction of an eternalised perfect woman, who in her smile concentrates an essence of femininity. Varda’s ‘Mona’ is otherwise: her behaviour is in complete contrast to any traditional ideas of female behaviour and demeanour, she is smelly and dirty, her facial expression often characterised by an aggressive or dismissive scowl. She does not court either the approval or the adoration of the male.
As in ‘Happiness’, in which the sound track is the ‘critical’ part of the scenario, used to deconstruct/re-conceptualise Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in C, so in Vagabond, the name ‘Mona’ is used to oppose the symbolic female nature of Leonardo’s portrait. Varda having fun employing film to combat both film industry use of art as a sanitising device and Bourgeois appropriation of cultural interpretations and related imputed significations. The ‘Monas’ of the type portrayed in Vagabond, women hardened bull whipped and fucked by life are equally due representation as the standard idealisations.
One question is why did Varda chose to end Mona’s career in death? Vagabond might have well have ended on a final shot of Mona hitching a ride, getting into a car and disappearing down the road becoming a dot on the horizon. But the idea of a finality is built into the script. Varda uses Mona’s boots as signage, as, through the final third of the film, they gradually fall apart exposing her to physical jeopardy. Varda in her scenario determined that her protagonist had to die. Her death as with her life indicating an existential freedom to live as herself on her own terms, as the new ‘Mona’. For the new ‘Mona’ to take on responsibility for a transitory life means accepting violence rape death. The pact is total. It is a core trait of Varda’s thinking that if women want to move to free themselves from male dominance, it’s not easy work. It has to be work that takes on both life and death, work that Varda also probes in ‘Cléo 5-7’.
Mona is a construct of pure immanence. One of Varda’s themes seems to be that for people to develop, or rather to rebuild a ruptured or false self, they don’t need a new image, they need to live immanently, to occupy their lives in the present. Existence precedes essence. Homeless people, wanderers have to do this. They live without a home, without the law (ni toit ni loi) reliant on and needing to develop their own inner knowledge and resources rather than to be an object or the creation of social forces. Vagabond is a film of such an existence; a film of the movement towards essence, as Mona rejects the life of a female functionary in an office, and strips out all the outer vestiges of her previous way of life to take to the road.
Vagabond is sits in the saddle of rural France. Varda’s scenario is designed as a series of episodic sometimes linked vignettes comprising the different types of relationships that Mona enters into as she moves through and about the countryside. We see how people interact and then comment upon Mona. Everyone sees that Mona, as a lone woman vagabond is usual, and that challenges them in one way or another: they expose their different attitudes towards her: some judgemental, some sympathetic, some manipulative, some evincing a simple acceptance of her as a being. And the relationships she has with men she enters into as an equal: on her own terms in her own time for her own ends.
But throughout the myriad of incidents and events, some trivial some engaging, what stands out is the manner in which Varda has filmed the rural world’s response to and engagement with Mona. Varda worked with a mix of non-actors and professionals but there is more going on in the making of the film than Varda just working and filming with ordinary people. There is something in the manner of her ability as director to work with situations and people as they are, enfolding them into a scenario without compromising the key elements of their natural responses. The result is that ‘Vagabond’ has an authentic resonance unusual in film, as Varda opens up wide the lens of her camera to allow us a glimpse of this hidden rural environment: its industrialisation of production, its newcomers, its diseased underbelly, its people materially changing but yet still often locked into inheritance of their forbears and the new youth culture spawned about the small country towns and revolving about drug use.
In this ability to bring her films to ‘life’ she shares some of the same talents as Kairostami who often worked in a similar way and who must have enjoyed ‘Vagabond’. Kairostami’s work, like Varda’s also often employed in his dramas an admixed documentary style.
There are certainly those who find ‘Vagabond’ a depressing viewing experience. I don’t share this feeling, as I feel that Varda through her creating of Mona, ultimately honours the spirit. And ‘spirit’ does not die.