Agnes Varda and ‘Vagabond’

I am heading for France today and thinking of one of the country’s best film directors who passed away earlier this year on March 29, Agnes Varda. One of my favorites of her profound works was a poignant film called ‘Vagabond’, released in 1985 and revived as part of a retrospective on Varda’s 90th birthday in 2018. In today’s world with so much homelessness among young, seemingly capable people, this film comes back to me over and over again and fills me with sorrow as it puts so many things into question. Starring the super talented Sandrine Bonnaire, the story tells of a young woman who, overcome with the monotony and hopelessness of her life as a secretary, casts the world aside and embarks on a life of drifting and hitch hiking, distancing herself from her previous identity; even changing her name to Mona. Along the way to her fate which we already know from the opening scenes, she encounters people who, not being able to comprehend her choices, try to help her back to the mainstream of life. Instead she becomes more and more detached making it difficult for the viewer to relate.
The story is told in flashback by people who encountered her along the way after her body is discovered frozen to death in a ditch in the wintery southern French countryside. That scene is the tragic image of Justine become Mona that haunts me every time I see a young woman beaten by the elements, exposure and hardship of life on the road or in the streets with a cardboard sign scribbled with a message seeking food or work. When a psychologist – who gave our protagonist a lift at one point in the story – tried to convince her to let her help her find a job, and Mona replied “je n’ai pas l’air,” I wept. Truthfully, she did not have the “look” or attitude that would allow for that transformation.
These weather-beaten young people in many cases are simply too far gone to return even if they so desired. What can be done then? one asks. There are many elements to consider: a youthful society of hopelessness; a lack of education; drugs; family; and reasonable choices. Of course, I always think “your mother would be crying to see you this way” but then again, maybe not. What we really need is a better understanding of the underlying causes and creative approaches to help. There are groups who offer lodging and counseling and perhaps a more comprehending group of adults and peers as a support system, and maybe Varda’s image of what is offered at the end of the line if they continue on their path would be helpful.
Andrea Kleine, a celebrated novelist, who grew up in the 80’s with a prevailing model of bubble gum-chewing, fluffy-haired girls who gave in to sexual advances from boys to increase their popularity, wrote a moving piece published in the Paris Review about her own reaction to Varda’s film. She tells of growing up saying “As a teenager, my view of the world was bleak. I was the only one of my small group of misfit friends to leave home and go away to college. Not long before I did, I saw Agnès Varda’s film ‘Vagabond’… Agnès Varda finally gave me a female protagonist who didn’t compromise.” As she moves along in the story, she finds it harder to understand the totally defiant Mona who in the end does not care at all what we think.
Amy Simmons writing for has this to say about Mona’s character created by Varda, “As she attempts to remove herself from the social norms expected of her gender and class, Varda shows us how perilous and short-lived this zoneless space can be…”
Yes, this is a disturbing film, and Varda does not tell us what to think about it, but at the same time it is very moving and cinematically, it is astonishingly beautiful.