Vagabond is the third film I’ve seen by French New Wave director Agnes Varda, after La Pointe Courte and Cleo from 5 to 7. I got into it more than I did those two films, maybe in part because it comes across as less artsy. I don’t mean that it’s wholly conventional in structure and style, but I felt like of the three it was the most accessible and interesting to someone like me, rather than being aimed more toward film students or a certain kind of intellectual.
The protagonist of the film is Mona (which is apparently a self-chosen pseudonym, as she remarks at one point that she used to have a different name, but that “now” she’s “Mona”), a drifter wandering the French countryside in winter, scraping by on whatever she can beg, borrow, steal, or earn through the occasional odd job, sleeping outdoors in her tent on the frequent occasions she has no one to crash with.
The film opens with Mona’s death, as a farm worker finds her lying dead in a ditch. The remainder of the film tells her life story, or at least the last few weeks or months of it, in flashbacks, augmented by some of the people she encountered giving their memories of her in interviews.
Vagabond doesn’t play out like a mystery where we’re seeking to find out how she died, as there’s no evidence of foul play or anything. But I suppose it’s still a mystery in another sense, as it invites us to try to understand who she is and why she chose to live the way she did.
These aren’t the kind of questions that typically have easy, discoverable, complete answers in real life, and they certainly do not here. They are what makes the film intriguing, but you’ll have to be satisfied with little clues here and there, and ultimately no more than a very partial understanding.
Mona rarely stays in one place for long. She is constantly on the move, but for no discernible reason, since each place she arrives at holds no more promise for her than the last place she left.
She is very much alone. Even when she is with someone, there is a standoffishness to her that makes it feel like she’s alone. Her behavior manifests that she values avoiding vulnerability more than she values human connection. Only occasionally do we see her smile or laugh or give any indication that she’s happy or comfortable with another human being, and even on those occasions there’s no sense that she’s letting her guard down and being real with the person.
Mostly she’s hostile and distrustful toward people, but even when she allows more interaction, she’s very, very quick to interpret them as somehow letting her down or betraying her, which puts her right back into her hostile and distrustful mode.
She’s certainly not a happy-go-lucky, nonmaterialistic, nonconformist enjoying a chance to explore the world in her youth, and to connect with likeminded people along the way. She does a certain amount of drinking, drug taking, and screwing with people she meets in her wanderings, but there’s a grimness to it rather than a feeling of hedonism, and any such partying connections she makes with people are superficial and brief.
Again, she is a very lonely figure.
Whatever she’s running from, what she’s running to doesn’t seem to be very fulfilling or pleasurable for her. She’s as aimless personally as geographically.
So what is she running from? She doesn’t seem to be unusually stupid, mentally ill, or drug addicted; her homeless lifestyle seems to be largely a matter of choice rather than of not having her shit together enough to have a more “normal” life. That, coupled with the fact that she has such a closed, negative, gloomy personality makes one think she has been damaged by, and is fleeing, some kind of abuse. She looks to be about in her 20s, so probably too old to be a runaway, but abuse deeper in her past is certainly a possibility. Nothing along those lines is ever specified, however.
About the only thing she says explicitly about her past is that she is trained for secretarial work, and did in fact work as a secretary. Her taking to the road seems to be at least in part a reaction against that, against the requirement of having to maintain some low level job with a set schedule just to survive. (I’m certainly sympathetic toward that. I’ve spent much of my life avoiding a “regular” life and “regular” jobs, and I’ve certainly paid a price for it. But there’s just something I find so revolting about it, so contrary to my nature and/or my values, that there’s a limit to how much I can bring myself to do it, whatever the consequences.)
She’s more suited to working as infrequently as possible, on her own terms, even if that means accepting all the disadvantages of life as a homeless vagrant.
Actually, in conventional terms she’s frankly lazy. When she does get some odd job, she typically does as little work at it as she can get away with, and she doesn’t seek to extend it so as to be able to save up some money and get ahead of the game. When someone does her a favor, and maybe the conventional thing to do would be to offer to do a little work in exchange for it, she doesn’t do so unless it’s explicitly required of her. She’s at least as willing to put out sexually to get by as to work.
Still I come back to just how aloof and alone she is, and what a sad feeling that engenders in a viewer. She’s not too proud to accept help from people, but she never shows any kind of appreciation for it. She’s quick to assume ill motives in and to lash out at people accordingly, but in the absence of that she’s just kind of neutral toward those around her.
She’s a user—I guess learning to be one is a survival skill when you have a lifestyle like hers—but not with any particular malice. It’s more like she doesn’t typically allow herself to recognize the personhood of other people. She isn’t gleefully rubbing her hands together thinking about how easy it is to manipulate people, any more than one would when using inanimate objects. She just drifts along, doing and saying what she needs to do and say to get what she needs to survive, while not being real with anyone, not letting anyone in.
People like her seem to bring out a caring or maternal side in some folks, a desire to help out someone in need, help them onto a better path. But again, she accepts the help if it happens to be offered, but she doesn’t demand it and doesn’t reciprocate the caring. It makes her day a little easier, just as better weather makes her day a little easier when she has no shelter other than her tent, but neither generates in her any feeling of obligation or even of simple gratitude.
For the most part, she’s basically an unpleasant person.
Maybe it’s not childhood abuse that has hardened her, but abuse since she has been on the road. We see her attacked once in a way that implies she is raped, and that may well not be the first time that’s happened. Certainly there are plenty of lesser insults and indignities she suffers as a single homeless woman traveling alone. You’d have to think that would make a person wary, distrustful, and inclined to limit her vulnerability.
Not that the implied rape has any discernible effect on her. She trudges through the next day with the same scowl with which she trudged through every previous day. Neither that incident nor anything else seems to lead her to the conclusion that she needs to make any significant change in her lifestyle, that she needs to prioritize getting off the streets and getting a place to live, a steady income, and some halfway healthy relationships.
It’s like she’ll just continue what she’s doing until she no longer can, which, as we’ve known since a minute or two into the movie, is a moment that comes very soon.
Then when the end does come near, there’s finally some indication of regret, or at least of lamenting her lot. Having lost her backpack and her tent, coughing and showing some indications of having fallen ill, freezing and shivering in the winter’s cold, she breaks down crying. It’s a powerful scene, and it’s the last we see of her alive.
In the end, I understand why she triggers in many people the desire to take her under their wing and help her out. At the same time, I understand why that generally doesn’t come to much due to her aloof, cold, ungrateful nature. As a vagabond, she’s in a mode where she’s only able to accept certain very limited forms of help—a meal, a few francs, a hit off a joint, a bed for the night, superficial companionship and a quick fuck, a day labor job, etc.—and not the help she truly needs.
That’s what’s sad, because while it’s true that some people she encounters are just trying to exploit her in some way or other—horny guys looking for sexual opportunities mostly—there are some that really do reach out to her with kindness and a willingness to connect with her in a deeper, healthier way. But she’s too damaged and angry for that.
In the end all her defiant self-sufficiency does is leave her dead in a ditch.
Vagabond is certainly a psychologically interesting study, even if it provides far more opportunities for speculation than answers.