If the old biblical adage holds any truth, the meek shall indeed inherit the earth. However, what happens when the earth has nothing left on it within which to give those without? In the stunning, moving and, ultimately, disconcerting Agnes Varda film Vagabond it would seem that she is suggesting that the meek in such a setup can only become that which refuels the earth. As such, it is not the meek that inherit the earth, but the exact opposite. This surprisingly religious reading on my part is not completely ungrounded, because as a filmmaker Varda constantly reminds me that not only is she worth taking seriously on every account, but that she is also worth considering alongside, if not above, the likes of her New Wave compatriots, often making similar films with a far greater success. Vagabond, while not her masterpiece, I reserve that appropriation for the stirring and visually evocative Cleo from 5 to 7, nonetheless, reflects what can be possible within the language of filmmaking while also constantly reconsidering how to use said language to constantly revive a lulling medium. The narrative of the film is not wholly non-linear, however, it is also not nauseatingly straightforward. One can read into the variety of factors affecting how a person deals with making a film and what personal experiences one pulls from and incorporates into their films, but I know I have said this previously when I discussed another moving film by Varda, One Sings The Other Doesn't, there is a lot to be said about how beneficial Varda's obvious and open feminist politics come into how she composes her film, whether it be the obvious elements of using a female in the protagonist role, or focusing the narrative on divergent voices, a few that are usually mocked or made to be silenced, even working on these very acknowledgements within the process. The diagetic merges with the non, the other merges with the self, in fact, Varda is obsessed with confronting dichotomies and it is perhaps most blatant here in Vagabond a work that considers the most most problematic of all divides, at least philosophically speaking, humanity versus the natural world.
Vagabond begins where it ends depicting a woman laying dead in a ditch, at this point unnamed, although she is later revealed to be known simply as Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire). Considering her clear, as the title suggest, vagabond status, an unseen narrator explains that it is her desire to recreate the moments that led up to Mona's death which begins the narratives winding recreation of Mona's experiences both through the documentary style narration of those Mona encountered, as well as the presumedly real experiences of Mona. Along the way Mona meets a variety of people, whether they be brief, chain necklace wearing lovers, or well-meaning prostitutes, always seeming sure of her constant movement whilst avoiding settling down, particularly for engagements that involve a romantic element. Occasionally individuals, such as a goat herding family attempt to over exert their assumptions about her place in the world by forcing a home and job upon Mona, only to have the rebellious young woman reject the labels in favor of a pursuit, to use her words, of "music and grass." Yet, Mona is not incapable of finding friendship, this occurs most clearly in two occasions, the first with Madame Lanier (Macha Méril) whose academic pursuits and desire to save trees somehow intersect into a bizarre attempt to shelter Mona, who takes up her lengthy car ride as a pseudo-bonding experience that also affords her the luxuries of high end food associated with the various conferences and events academic affords Lanier, however, the reality of Lanier's world cannot intersect with Mona's carefree style and the two must part ways. Other instances wherein Mona meets people, as is the case with Tunisian migrant work Assoun (Yahiou Assouna) the customs of culture cause a divide, wherein Mona does want to stay but prescribed gender assumptions make it impossible. Perhaps the most fascinating of engagements in the film come in the way of Mona's point of admiration through the eyes of Yolande (Yolande Moreau) who sees Mona's vagabond life as a form of romanticism and unbridled freedom. Yet even this is destroyed when Mona's carefree attitude directly conflicts Yolande's financial safety. In the end, Mona is left to fend for herself and in a moment when all things are against her, even in a disturbingly bizarre sense, and it is in this ultimate form of lack that her body can no longer survive.
I began this review with a biblical reference which was more of a passing thought in its initial inception, however, as I begin to consider the ways in which the film works it reminds me of two more travelogue films with far more religious implications. The first is Robert Bresson's heart wrenching Au Hasard Balthazar, wherein a donkey comes to represent what is easily the greatest Christ reference in the history of cinema. The second is the hyper-provacative and wildly irreverent reconsideration of Catholic dogma that is Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way. The latter existing in a state of complete temporal and spatial non-linear composition, while the former is about as linear a film as one could ever encounter. In between these two is Varda's Vagabond and deservedly so because it is about where it could stand in terms of its spiritual considerations. Far more philosophical in its endeavors, Vagabond asks very earnest questions about what role freedom and groundedness play in a persons mobility. I have a tough time thinking of a more morally free character in the history of cinema than Mona, excluding the anti-rule abiding individuals of existential film noir films, however, these are always in opposition to a corrupt world of crime. Here, the corruption of the world comes through their attempts to enforce societal understanding upon Mona, often at the expense of gendering her and her presumed domesticity, so much so that Mona herself longs to work in a space as a caretaker, even excelling beautifully when given the opportunity. The act of care, however, is contingent upon social assumptions that to do so means to follow very strict rules. Indeed when she gets an aging aunt drunk on brandy, it is deemed morally corruptible, despite it being clear that the Aunt is the happiest she has been in ages. To be free is to have no burden, but it is also a point wherein a person can offer anything because in doing so they have nothing to lose. Indeed, this takes on a degree of spiritual consideration as one looks at notions of homelessness, charity and expectations. There are individuals throughout the film who attempt to help Mona, but often their actions are contingent on their own expected reward. It is no accident that one of Mona's most earnest encounters comes through a passing engagement with a prostitute, making her far more a Christ figure than anybody might want to openly admit.
Key Scene: The scene in which Mona drinks brandy with the aging aunt is sweet and pure cinema in its most realized sense.
Criterion box set. Buy this, it is one of their best offering, despite not having the adoration some of the other collections seem to possess.