Back in UK cinemas to mark a BFI retrospective of the French New Wave director, Agnès Varda’s acclaimed 1985 road movie Vagabond, starring Sandrine Bonnaire, is a veritable masterwork from one of our greatest living filmmakers.
A scruffy-looking girl sits in a field. It’s winter. She attempts to eat part of a baguette. But doing proves a hopeless task. The bread is so stale, when she takes a bite, it disintegrates in her mouth (the sound design loudly and cleverly emphasising the disgusting texture of the food). She might as well be eating floral foam. That’s what it sounds like she’s tucking into.
Bonnaire picked up a Best Actress César award, for her cryptic portrayal of a homeless teenager traipsing aimlessly around rural France. Along the way, she is met with kindness, indifference, is preyed upon by men, sells her body and steals whatever she can. Mona (Bonnaire) is first introduced to us Laura Palmer-style (dead) with Varda using flashbacks and interviews with people who came briefly into her orbit, though most have little to say because the girl was tight-lipped, when the subject of her past was broached. We do learn she was once named Simone, that she worked as a secretary for a time, but “People pissed me off”. Is she on some Orwellian tramping adventure to experience life in the raw or is she desperately trying to outrun her demons?
An impressionistic picture is built of her final days, though one forced into the abstract. Like the wintry settings, the picture we get of Mona is sparse and ultimately mysterious, to the point of enigma. Was her name inspired by Mona Lisa? If so, it isn’t a secretive smile on show, more a punk rock sneer of existentialist insouciance. Mona is hauntingly unknowable, but in a mundane way. She just won’t open up to anybody emotionally. Neither is it outside the realms of possibility to suggest she is a person actively looking to die, but is in no particular rush to do so. Her ending up in a ditch in a farmer’s field is a better place than any to check out.
Vagabond is aesthetically rebellious and fascinatingly put together. It completely rejects easy answers, maudlin sentiments or panders to the demands of social critique. Joanna Bruzdowicz’s thriller-like score adds a further layer of the unusual, along with Varda’s use of fourth-walling breaking, populating the cast with non-professional actors and vignettes which offer momentary reprieve from Mona’s woes.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn