December 19th 2013 03:10
Agnes Vardaís Vagabond (1985) opens on a drab, anonymous provincial landscape. A body is discovered by a lowly vineyard worker. Most likely, this young woman has perished because of the extreme cold that claims this place in winter. Varda then launches into a reversal of time, sifting back through the tumultuous final months of Mona, her vagabond - a lost soul drifting from one locale to another, life a series of petty, irritating, demeaning, challenging excursions into the unknown void of a future haphazardly considered but never embraced.
We become privy to scattershot accounts of her passing days through the people she meets; each encounter both elucidates and confuses for Mona is an enigma, a baseless young woman without motivation. As utterly apathetic, inflexible, and incapable of gratitude as she is, how can we find room in our hearts to empathise with her plight? Somehow, glimpses are enough, of a life exempted, an hypocrisy scorned, a conformism abandoned for its soul-crushing toll.
Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire prove to be magnificent facilitators of this gloomy trudge into social realism. Aged just 17 at the time of filming, Bonnaire who would become one of Franceís great actresses in the following two decades, as adept at portraying a member of the aristocracy as a commoner.
Here she embodies Mona with scary conviction; in her dark-eyed perception, all the shifting mysterious abstractions of Mona form an incomplete whole from which weíre constantly attempting to extract the grain of a deeper truth. By small degrees, slivers of details from a shrugged off former life bleed through: she once had another name and, briefly, a job as a secretary too. But are these too just offhand lines to throw others off the scent of a pitiful, emotionally debilitating fact?
Some are repulsed by Monaís inattention to hygiene whilst others ruminate and philosophise, linking her lowly status to sad reflections of a changing world. Others still are strangely drawn to Mona like a university lecturer (Macha Meril) who feels impelled to help or at least keep her in sight; she Macho, this feral young woman becomes a peculiar fascination with the potential for blunt insights into what makes a lower social class tick.
A young shepherd and former philosophy student even offers a slice of his land to tend but though Mona speaks optimistically of embracing a similar idyll, sheís hopelessly lazy and unmotivated. Her only commitment is to drifting in and out of lives, farewelling one bleak plain for the next. Itís this wise shepherd who pierces the shell of Monaís emotional encasement with greatest acuity, telling her she seeks a fine balance between freedom and aloneness, seeking one, before falling, like so many others before her, into the lightless, endless maw of the other.
A sobering tale of social displacement, Vagabond is a fragmented reflection of a singular life grinding down to an inevitable halt. This morbid but compelling film rings true, in tone, in its performances (including then novice Yolande Moreau), but most of all in its direction, the even-handed guidance of Varda evoking grainy, subtle poetic expression from deepest well of despair.