Directed by Agnes Varda. 1985.

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"You struggle and you survive. You fail to struggle and you perish. The ways of the world are marked with the bones of those who hesitated" - Adlai E. Stevenson

Vagabond, Agnes Varda's bleak and uncompromising film about a free-spirited drifter on the road in southern France is difficult to watch yet it is filled with images that are hard to forget: dark rooms in abandoned houses, brown muddy fields, a young woman thumbing a ride in tattered clothes carrying a backpack, and, at the end, huddling under a makeshift blanket facing the frigid night. The fact about where she ends up is clear from the outset as we see her frozen body lying in a ditch and the film attempts to piece together what brought her to her sad ending. 

18-year-old Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) is infuriating and largely unlikable, but the film does not judge her actions or lifestyle and Varda offers no explanations, psychological insights, or admonitions to society, there is just Mona - a spunky but deeply troubled young woman. On the surface she is a free spirit. She smokes a lot of cigarettes and pot, drinks cheap booze, and enjoys the company of men, but it is clear that there is a lot going on beneath - some untold story, perhaps a rejection from a member of her family or a boyfriend, an event that has instilled confusion and self-loathing, but we never find out. Like Charles in Bresson's The Devil Probably, Mona turns her anger inward without recognizing a problem, much less attempting to find its source and the film becomes one long suicide watch. 

Little by little we find out bits and pieces of information about Mona through interviews and recreated flashbacks but they do not add up to much. We learn that she comes from a middle class family, she has employable skills but there is no answer as to why she has dropped out of life, tuning out everything and everyone except the open road. Angry and self-righteous yet strangely passive, Mona drifts from one encounter to another without connection, commitment, or joy. She meets a college professor, a tree agronomist looking into the diseases that kill plants, a Turkish migrant worker who wants her to stay until his fellow workers reject the idea, a goat-herding intellectual who offers her a piece of land to cultivate, and a wealthy old woman who needs a companion. 

The reactions of the participants help us to create a picture but we learn more about the witnesses than about Mona. Each person reacts to her in a different way, and some romanticize her out of all proportion to reality. A young girl helps her fill her water bottle at the farm and later tells her parents that she wants to be free like that girl. Yolande, the maid at the old woman's estate, feels that Mona's relationship with a fellow drifter is her idea of true love. Some offer her a way out but she will have none of it. She prefers the road with its adventure and uncertainty. The farmer disappointedly says: "It's not wandering, it's withering." 

One of the best scenes is when she gets drunk with the old woman who knows everyone is waiting for her to die. Both have a moment of laughter but it is only a mask for world-weariness and will not hold off the night, encroaching like a thief. In a truly accomplished performance, Ms. Bonnaire creates a memorable character that forces us to bear witness to our own humanity. As one powerful moment blends into another, she forces us to see a face behind the statistics we see each day in the newspaper and to look this woman in the eye knowing that she is a part of us, perhaps the part that we would rather not see. Mona is not a person I would particularly care to meet, but I also know that she is one that I cannot ignore or ever forget.


Howard Schumann
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