Continuing their run of movies by or about women, World Cinema brings us both with Agnès Varda’s 1985 Vagabond (the original French title is Sans toit ni loi, “without roof nor law”), a peculiar and somewhat disturbing take on the “road” movie. Varda is one of those few filmmakers whose work has almost entirely slipped past me. I’ve seen her quirky, playful film about her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes (1991), but not the more famous Varda titles, Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), meaning I’m coming to this film unschooled in her work. Vagabond is a striking film—one that feels like it was made at least 10 years earlier—and, I must note, a fairly depressing one.
Varda’s film opens with the body of Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) being found frozen in a ditch. It’s unclear how she got there or why—and it’s this idea that supposedly intrigues Varda. I say supposedly because the story is fictional, but Varda intrudes on the film, telling us through narration that she’d become fascinated by the mystery of this young girl, causing her to set out to capture the testimony of those who knew her—not telling them that the girl is dead. What follows is theoretically a documentary, but not only are the interviews written and staged, but Varda uses them to build reconstructions of the events that lead to Mona’s fate.
It’s an interesting approach to the girl’s story, and it results in an unusual film—one that draws no conclusions. The film merely listens, recreates and observes. It doesn’t pretend to have any special insight into Mona. Instead, it simply recreates her slow disintegration as she becomes increasingly disconnected from the world. More oddly still, it is not a particularly sympathetic look. It is, in fact, a rather dispassionate view of the story—a take that makes Mona’s life even more sad and pitiable, despite the fact that Varda refuses to make the character likable. I can’t think of another film quite like this one, which is part of what makes it a fascinating work. I suspect it’s also what makes it something of a downer.