Vagabond opens with a picturesque shot of a farm field, in which a tractor works its way down a straight line toward the camera, nicely composed between different sets of trees. But then the camera slowly begins to zoom in, past the tractor to something else in the rear corner of the screen. It’s as if writer-director Agnes Varda is saying, “No, look here.”
I won’t reveal what the movie wants us to discover, but I will say that this heightened attentiveness is eventually turned toward someone who also could easily go unnoticed: Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young woman hitchhiking, camping, and squatting her way through the French countryside. Mona largely keeps to herself—except when she needs food or water—and she remains something of a mystery throughout the movie. That’s because Vagabond isn’t interested in why she is, but who she is. The movie doesn’t ask her to explain herself, and that attitude makes all the difference.
Bonnaire is remarkable, considering her task is to give the audience a window into a standoffish character. (When people note how badly she smells and turn away from her, Mona looks at them as if to say, “That’s the point.”) Bonnaire succeeds by embracing the standoffishness, turning that quality into a point of fascination. Mona isn’t just drifting through the world; she’s challenging it. Consider the way she approaches a water pump, immediately whacking it, assuming it’s broken. Or when she pulls a baguette from her backpack, finds it stale, and smacks it against the wall in frustration. The life Mona has chosen isn’t easy, but she meets its difficulties head on.
As fascinating as Bonnaire is—and despite the idiosyncratic attention to the visual patterns in sand dunes, crosswalks, and stone walls that Varda provides—Vagabond would be somewhat slight if it simply consisted of following Mona around. But Varda has also constructed an ingenious framing device, in which the various people Mona meets on her travels intermittently give documentary-like reports of their encounters. Sometimes these are delivered to someone else in the scene and sometimes they’re delivered directly to the camera. It’s another mixing of form and genre, as Varda managed in her first feature, La Pointe Courte, and many others.
It’s as if Varda is saying, “No, look here.”
We soon learn that these “eyewitnesses” are hardly reliable. Or, at least, they don’t help us form any sort of consensus opinion of Mona. Some describe her as a romantic figure, an enviable champion of personal freedom. Others depict her as conniving, or even dangerous. (Notably, one of these is a man who exchanges food for sexual favors.) Still others find her pitiable and feel guilty, after she has moved on, that they didn’t do more to help. Yet no matter how many descriptions we get, in the more straightforward narrative scenes Mona always remains decisively herself. She is her own inscrutable woman, perhaps best demonstrated when a truck driver picks her up at the beach and points out that no one is around because it’s winter. Mona’s reply? “I am.”
A few of Mona’s encounters offer the possibility of a more stable life. Perhaps the most promising of these is a young family who raises goats and offers her some land of her own to cultivate. The father—who holds a graduate degree in philosophy and says that he spent some time on the road himself—notes that things will end badly for her if she continues living this way. With a sigh made up of equal parts satisfaction and regret, he tells her, “I chose a middle road between loneliness and freedom.”
Yet neither the work nor the prospect of domesticity suit her. (Varda includes a wry shot of Mona gazing out the window of her new trailer on the couple’s land, lace curtains on either side, looking very much like the suburban housewife.) Fed up with her lack of effort, the husband finally tells her, “You’re no dropout. You’re just out. You don’t exist.”
Maybe. But it’s also telling that in their accounts, many of the eyewitnesses talk about Mona as if she was the most compelling person they had ever met. By the movie’s climax, as Mona falls in with a band of miscreants, it dawns on us that we might feel the same. As Mona’s independent spirit begins to dwindle, forced to reckon with desperation and need, we suddenly realize how much we’ve come to care for her. And by its end, Vagabond has unexpectedly gained the metaphysical impact of another French landmark: Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, in which the donkey of the title is buffeted from one owner to the next. Mona, unseen by most but distinctly remembered by a few, comes to stand in for any soul who has opened themselves up to the world, and paid the price for it.