Eugene Kang: This month we are diving into Vagabond, one of the most esteemed works from Agnes Varda, a director I admire greatly, but whose work is sadly a bit of a blind spot for me. Called by some to be the mother of the French New Wave, Varda had a long career as an innovative storyteller and documentarian who is grounded in a humanistic view of the world. She is well-known not just for her focus on complex, interesting female characters, but also her focus on disenfranchised groups such as the Black Panthers or gleaners, the people who pick up the leftovers from harvest to sustain themselves. She is also a great experimenter in style and has had a profound influence on both narrative and documentary filmmaking. I see marks of her worldview and style in Vagabond, but before I delve into my thoughts, Nick and Jessica, what has been your experience with Varda’s works and what do you find most striking or appealing about her work?
Jessica Moore: My introduction to Varda was with her lesser known 1965 romantic feature Le Bonheur, which, looking back, is quite a departure from the sensibilities I have come to associate with Varda’s oeuvre. By this I mean Varda, to me, is a master of focalised, empathetic filmmaking; her films are thoroughly devoted to quotidian, individual experiences, mostly centering on women who lead rather solitary lifestyles. Her camera not only understands these individuals, it cherishes their humility. Complemented by her prolific documentary films, both Cleo de 5 a 7 and Vagabond are perhaps the most notable examples of Varda’s sympathies and fascinations as a director.
Nick Davie: I can only echo both of your glowing comments about Agnes Varda and her unique sensibilities. She had such a brilliant presence behind the camera and was in my opinion, way ahead of her time. Her filmography displays such a varied range of gender dynamics that few directors can boast today and as you have stated Eugene, Varda brought focus to the marginalised at a time when others were simply ‘playing it safe’. In regard to her history as a pivotal figure in French cinema, her first feature La Pointe Courte is steeped in neorealism, and was a precursor for so many of the great New Wave films from Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, etc. Her pioneering role in the French New Wave was so important to future industry diversity, and she was not afraid to push boundaries or challenge the status quo.
She had such a wonderful, warm, and approachable character offscreen also. There is a deeply personal bond between Agnes Varda and cinema as an entity, a palpable connection that was evident at any film festival or premiere. The first film of hers I managed to watch was Documenteur, a typically poignant blend of fact and fiction, filmed in vernacular photography that really supports the docudrama. I find her films often leave me with a sobering sensation, that I have just watched something so real, Vagabond as the perfect example. Whilst I have really only seen a handful of her films, Vagabond is a striking film. I am not sure many could write such a powerful and complex protagonist as Mona. Agnes Varda creates her protagonists almost as set pieces that bring the supporting cast to life, whilst absorbing and projecting the trauma of the world’s afflictions upon them. Vagabond is a film ahead of its time and one that for me, holds up strongly to date. I am curious to know where you see this film in terms of its place in contemporary film culture? Do you think it has aged well?
Eugene: To address your question first, Nick, I think Vagabond holds up remarkably well. The road movie is a genre that has existed ever since the birth of cinema, and that is what Vagabond is at its core. Road trip movies will always appeal to filmgoers because of the romanticism often associated with unfettered travel. Even when characters are disenfranchised, there is still a whiff of romanticism involved, especially when we see characters triumph in the end in one way or another. A very recent example I can think of is Chloe Zhao‘s Nomadland, in which Frances McDormand plays an itinerant worker who finds considerable freedom and community in her travels, despite her many struggles. So when we see Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) lying frozen in a ditch at the very beginning of the film, Varda is signaling that her take on the road trip movie is going to be starkly different, bereft of the romanticism that we might expect.
Jessica, your comment on Varda’s empathetic filmmaking and the focus on individual experience, is definitely on point. Vagabond proceeds as a series of flashbacks that give us gradually deeper insights into Mona’s life and what led to her itinerant lifestyle. Yet Varda also spends much of her screen time focusing on the side characters and their perceptions of Mona, sometimes even going further into their discussions that don’t revolve around her. What did you both think about this approach and were there any encounters that stood out in terms of how they fit (or don’t fit) into Mona’s story?
Jessica: Indeed, I believe Vagabond challenges our expectations of the road movie formula. As you say, Eugene, the tinge of romanticism so heavily associated with road movies is visibly absent. Opening with Mona’s corpse laying in a ditch (if we are to describe Vagabond as a road movie, perhaps there is no better metaphor for inertia than this startling introduction) strips us of any hope for her journey; her arc is violently punctuated before we even see it begin. Framing the narrative in this way obscures our expectations and directs our sympathies towards Mona in a rather detached way — we watch her journey through the film in the context of her tragic end, awaiting its realization. But perhaps this cinematic foresight actually weaves us closer to the story. As Mona navigates these rural spaces, with her focalisation disrupted by the reporting of others, we find ourselves incredibly close to her, keen to understand what is there of her character before it’s too late. Watching Mona acclimate to the stark milieu becomes a rather mesmerising, nourishing experience. To answer your question, I think the focus on peripheral characters works exquisitely — it not only adds to the completeness of the film’s realism, it rather playfully reflects Varda’s own directorial fascination with the lives of others. I wonder what you both thought of Varda’s decision to flesh out the narrative with secondary characters?
Nick: As you mention Jess, the introduction is startling, and I believe can also be linked to your question about fleshing out secondary characters. Beginning with the end essentially, Varda employs Mona almost as a device to coax out reactions and responses from the characters she encounters on her travels. Whilst the travel element of the road movie is there in perhaps a loose sense, there is still a general sense of movement, needing to leave one place to be another. Beginning with the end of this journey, as you see strips us of hope from the offset but it does allow us to experience the world Mona experienced, which I think makes Vagabond so successful, there is no sugarcoating, no gloss, these are real experiences for a woman who wishes to experience life away from her past, away from responsibility, and to heighten this realism are characters who even envy the life they perceive Mona of having. Varda functioning as the unseen interviewer while we recall the road life of Mona completes the film. We are given an insight into Mona’s chosen isolation and freedom, whilst on the other hand presented with the positive and negative experiences she has with these secondary characters. Every encounter deepens both the life of Mona and that of those she encounters, for better or worse. Do you see any current working director employing the style of docudrama as we see it in Vagabond?
Eugene: A really striking but telling scene is towards the beginning when we first hear the narrator’s voiceover about how she started to piece together bits of Mona’s life by talking to the people who knew her in her last days. She also says that she did not tell them that she had died. This really stuck out to me, and, the more I think about it, it was a really sharp strategy on Varda’s part. If she had prefaced her interviews with this news, then the stories they would have told about Mona would have been romanticized and possibly make Mona out to be more saintly than she really is. She also mentions how she doesn’t know who Mona is really, but she imagines that she came from the sea. Then she cuts to a scene where Mona is indeed emerging from the sea, like an itinerant Botticelli’s Venus. Only we soon find out that there are two young men leering at her from afar and talking about how easy it would be to take advantage of a girl all by herself. Varda knows very well that the threat of violence, sexual or not, is a great danger for any woman traveling alone, but she also avoids the more lurid connotations of the story with her naturalistic style.
Did any other scenes stick out for either of you on this viewing? Also, I would love to get your thoughts on Sandrine Bonnaire. I have been such a big fan of her since watching A Nos Amours. I would venture to say that she is one of the best actresses who started off her career young (she was 15 when she starred in A Nos Amours). I was struck by her naturalism and lack of awkward self-consciousness in A Nos Amours, and Vagabond, which came out only two years later, sees her playing a completely different character, one who is believably disheveled and seemingly detached from the world.
Jessica: Nick, your thoughts on the secondary characters are aligned with my own; I feel that their perspective of Mona, even their envy (at odds with the hostility of Mona’s experience), makes for a richly empathetic film. True to Varda’s sincerest motivations as a director, Vagabond is a paean to interactions between strangers. Varda delights in the arbitrariness of individuals in passing and the emotional consequence this generates. The strangers had their own respective portraits of Mona carved out, and, as you say Eugene, the interviewer’s reluctance to confess Mona’s death elides any romanticisation or sympathy; their memories of her character are honestly, generously expressed. Eugene, I’m glad you brought up Mona’s emergence from the ocean because that’s an image that really stood out to me on this viewing. Despite the presence of onlooking men, there is something thoroughly, mythically feminine in this sequence that feels at home in Varda’s direction. Her filmography sees nature as its own alluring entity, and Vagabond is no exception. Even the more urbanised spaces feel ‘grown over,’ coated in dirt and dust — all images are tainted with decay.
Another scene that comes to mind is with a stranger’s daughter who, speaking of Mona to her mother, says ‘the girl who wanted water, she was free. She goes where she likes.’ More than an appropriate tagline for the film, this moment tempts the audience to reflect on notions of freedom and placelessness — are they the same thing? And if not, can they co-exist? Betty Blue, from the following year, posed similar questions. Both films depict the precariousness of moving forward without direction, particularly women’s experience of such. Beatrice Dalle amassed a cult following for her role as Betty, and Sandrine Bonnaire’s bracing, oftentimes tender performance as Mona (I absolutely love the sweet hysteria Mona shares with the old woman as they drink together) is certainly deserving of the same acclaim. Vagabond‘s narrative structure demands an autonomous and vulnerable performance, and Bonnaire’s portrayal balances these sensibilities exquisitely. What do you both think about the slippage between freedom and placelessness? With which do you think Mona identifies?
Nick: That is a fascinating question Jess, firstly I think the decay, the general environment, and the buildings all look lost, as lost as Mona perhaps, but purposefully lost. The decay only emphasizes this placelessness, which I think has some relation to freedom… But it is hard to pinpoint. Though I cannot put a clear definition to either when together, I think in Vagabond they co-exist. The freedom is evident in her actions, in her environment, her reason for why she is on this journey, and in the notion she could take any path at any time. The placelessness is represented by the choices she does and can make. It is a fascinating concept. Jess, you mention dirt and dust coating places; from reading further into the film, Agnes Varda describes her intentions for Vagabond “to film what freedom and dirt meant.” Which itself is a fascinating statement considering your question and considering the thematic language the film presents, I felt a surreal existential confusion after a second viewing. I see Mona as someone unwilling to conform at all to the social norms of the time, she would consider herself and her experiences built on freedom, on the other hand perhaps placelessness is why she is on this very journey.
Eugene: Jessica, your question on the connection between freedom and placelessness is an excellent one, and one that seems to characterize much of Varda’s work. In Vagabond, rather than give a definitive answer to the question of whether these two concepts are the same, we get answers from the characters in the film instead. We see a maid who sees Mona’s life as romantic, whereas a woman who gave Mona a ride in her car mainly notices how much she smells and how she seems to prefer the car to a house. Perhaps most telling is the fact that she actually had some education and job training, but she ultimately didn’t choose that path. Why? We do not know. When you start to delve into the issue of homelessness, the problem is much more complex than it might seem. Many people who are homeless did not choose to be that way and would much rather prefer living in one location. Yet, there are also people who naturally do not want to be tied down, no matter how much money, security or safety they are offered, and some of these people do not have a mental condition that makes them averse to living in one place. I am reminded of Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace, in which Ben Foster‘s character chooses to be homeless, most likely because of PTSD. In Vagabond, we do not get a neat explanation, which is, of course, one of the major strengths of this film. While Varda definitely wants us to engage with why someone would choose to be a vagabond, she also wants to remind us that Mona is a person, and just by virtue of being human, her wanderlust stems from something that is in all of us.
We clearly all love this film. If anyone wanted to check out other works that also explored the themes of freedom vs. placelessness, or perhaps, other films by Agnes Varda, what would you recommend?
Jessica: This viewing of Vagabond came shortly after my discovery of Varda’s The Gleaners and I: a documentarian love-song to the modern enterprise of gleaning, in particular, to those who glean out of financial necessity, artistic inspiration, or enviro-activism. Who else, other than ‘the soul of the French New Wave’ herself, could imbue such charm into a documentary owed precisely to eccentricity? Varda’s well-celebrated curiosity and tenderness as a director flourishes in The Gleaners and I; she is moved by the very idea of disused furniture, wasted vegetation from markets and fields, paintings of gleaners — all are earnestly, carefully exhibited by Varda’s tactile camera. In close connection with Vagabond, Varda’s documentary sees objects as frameworks of stability; as beautiful, indeterminate vessels of personality. Far lighter in tone though concerned with the same business of simply existing and the ways in which we attach ourselves to the objects around us, The Gleaners and I would make a sublime double-bill with Vagabond. Both raise questions regarding how we define the concepts of ownership and belonging – both are perfect examples of Varda’s sincerity as an artist.
Nick: Having watched Vagabond again, I can think of no other director better at blurring the lines of documentary and fiction as well as Varda. I’d recommend following up Vagabond with Documenteur. Another exploration of loneliness, but tinged with sentiments of loss and estrangement from family, the film also places Varda’s editor Sabine Mamou as the lead character. Whilst Vagabond has a spiky realism, Documenteur feels genuinely poetic; this is a reflective tonic that calmly broaches so many intimate reflections on Mamou’s character’s life. Viewers of Documenteur may also wish to visit Mur Murs, for which Mamou is the editor as well, as a third feature with Vagabond and Documenteur, though it is more of a spiritual companion to the latter. Both explore L.A. in detail and resemble the care and focus of Vagabond in bringing location to life. In the sense that Mona is seeking a ‘new life’ in Vagabond, the protagonist in Documenteur is searching for her place in America as a young immigrant with her son. There is significant personal resonance also, filmed after Varda’s separation from Jacques Demy– their son plays the son in the film, which lends itself to the merging of fact and fiction as she does so brilliantly well.
Eugene: I had already mentioned Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace for a similar exploration of the reasons why a person would choose to be homeless. That film would never be mistaken for a documentary as Vagabond might, but I think it is also a rich character study of a person with PTSD and how that influences everything about his actions, including his choice to be homeless. His choice to be homeless, however, also affects his teenage daughter. Vagabond, for its strengths, does not really delve into how Mona’s actions affect other people. This different focus would complement Vagabond in a double bill quite nicely.
I would also recommend Barbara Loden‘s Wanda, about a character who is technically homeless, though her wanderings are more motivated by desperation and survival, even more so than Mona, who has a somewhat more carefree attitude. Wanda, played by Loden herself, is even more of a cipher than Mona, and we don’t even get the benefit of flashbacks from the people that she encounters to understand her actions. Yet the refusal of Loden to give easy explanations of Wanda’s actions, as dangerous and irresponsible as they can be, makes it easier for us to empathize and not harshly judge a character who is really doing what makes sense to her. It also deals more directly with the threat to solitary women and how society doesn’t give much protection to such people. This genre is a rich, varied one and Vagabond really exemplifies some of the best traits of not only this type of film but of Varda’s empathetic world view itself.