' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Vagabond (1985)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Vagabond (1985)

“Vagabond” opens with death. It is not, however, spectacular death or violent death, it is not even a death we see. Instead it is a young girl – twenties perhaps? – laying in a ditch in French wine country, apparently on account of freezing. That we know so little and are shown so little beyond the girl herself, the faces of those who find her and the stark images of the land, that it is all presented so plainly, is instantly indicative of the tenor of Agnes Varda’s 1985 French subtly pulverizing bit of neo-realism. What is shown is what we all see, but each one of us is left alone to judge.

It flashes back to the beginning, though not the “beginning”. We simply catch up with our vagabond protagonist – whose name we eventually learn to be Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) – in the midst of wandering. We never see nor necessarily even learn in any great detail what compelled her to hit the road. There is idle talk of real world – work as a secretary, a dislike of bosses and such – but that it is never put into context with the rest of her previous life means we cannot be certain of its exact relevance.

Varda assembles her film in the manner of a documentary, as a mostly unseen narrator re-traces Mona’s path and interviews all those she encountered along the way. The interviews are brief and made jarring because no two are the same. In a conventional movie they would fill in the requisite blanks and allow us to get a solid hold on the character. Here they simply work to underscore how Mona lets no one in even as they help her out, and that none of us have any kind of hold on who she is.

Ultimately that might be Varda’s bravest decision – not to make our vagabond conveniently likable. She is ill-mannered and uncouth, sure, but that’s at least partially because she’s been on the road and wearing the same clothes and sleeping in the same tent for nobody knows how long. At the same time she comes across oddly ungrateful toward the kindness of so many strangers. For a spell she essentially lives in the car of an incredibly generous woman who looks past the smell and appearance to develop an affection for what she views as a lost soul trying to regain sense of herself. Finally, reluctantly, she knows she must bid Mona adieu. She gives her a couple plastic bags of food and a wad of cash. Mona does not even say thank you.

A young man buys her a sandwich when she makes starry eyes at the sandwich he is consuming. She picks it up, turns away and bites into it. Again, no show of gratitude. She stays on a sheep farm with a family that offers her a place to stay and land to work. Instead she works no land and stays inside, smoking and reading, until she is pointedly asked to leave. She hooks up and remains at the side of drifting young men until she has more or less sped through their stashes of pot and then forges on alone. “Vagabond” sort of pushes us away from its title character in the same manner she pushes away everyone around her, and in the same manner we are left to assume she must have pushed away whatever previous life she lived.

Bonnaire’s performance, simply and remarkably, just sort of…..is. It alternately suggests passion and detachment, nobility and mental imbalance, and that we never quite know which one it really is only enhances the mood.

And it's why the film I thought of – and this is on account of catching up with “Vagabond” 28 years after the fact – was Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild”, the 2007 rendering of the real life Christopher McCandless who tramped across America and ultimately to his death in the wilds of Alaska. There is much conjecture about the real life McCandless regarding his intent, smarts and even state of mind. Regardless, the film, based on Jon Krakauer’s book, goes the way of Jack London, painting it as a romanticized quest accentuated by an inspiring score and voiceovers from his sister which describe a desire to separate from society and attempt to track down some deeper meaning to existence. By the time he meets his maker in the film, it is hard not to sense he has in some way succeeded in finding it.

“Vagabond” is the flip side to that record. It objectively records its main character and avoids any significant stylistic intrusions. We watch as a young woman already removed from society becomes removed from what is left of the world around her, and then removed from even herself. By the time we return to the ditch it is hard not to sense we have just spent an hour and forty-five minutes watching a slow suicide.


Anonymous said...

I remember when this came out back in '85 and I've been meaning to see it ever since. Good review and very interesting selection of 80's movies that you choosen for this month.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks. I really like digging through the 80s to find different things that I missed. The next two are much more of the era but still suitably different I think.