Vagabond (or Sans toit ni loi, in French) plays as the sum of a fairly dismal life but not an unworthy one. For those familiar with Agnes Varda’s filmography, whether the penchant for seascapes or her concerted empathy for the discarded, it’s easy to see how this picture fits in with the others. In many ways, it blends her sensibilities for narrative fiction and her later documentary work like The Gleaners and I.
However, from a storytelling perspective, Vagabond also plays as her Citizen Kane, except she sets her sight on someone on the complete opposite end of the human spectrum. It’s curious how the paragon of money and power could somehow share fundamental things in common with a proud, young drifter. They feel so isolated and in some sense unknowable because they rarely allow others in.
Citizen Kane is a veritable jungle gym of technical invention and play. There’s never been anything quite like it, but the qualm I always maintained on early viewings is how there’s no connection. Because this is the point. It feels a bit hollow. We never get to truly know Charles Foster Kane because he never really let anyone know him.
The curious thing is how Varda derives so much concern for her subject. If we don’t end up knowing a great deal about her personal biography, it does feel like we at least appreciate her as a ceaselessly proud and increasingly worn-down human being.
I have so little history with Sandrine Bonaire and know only that she made an auspicious appearance in Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amour (1983). However, watching her is a pleasure; she looks like a more stoic predecessor to Brie Larson.
In many ways, Bonaire’s character informs the structure of the film and so it functions well. She is an itinerant young woman, free and apparently happy with her lifestyle. It’s easy to label her as a vagrant and a loafer. She never holds down a consistent job and maintains a brusque belligerence in the face of others. It makes her fiercely independent, and skeptical about the prevailing philosophies of life.
Through it all, we don’t know where she will go; she fosters these short, finite relationships that have a definite beginning and end, and then she moves on to her next destination. There’s no goal or visible endpoint. All we have is the frame of the story to give us some reference to make sense of her life.
It’s composed of scenes featuring these kinds of visual ellipsis as people she interacted with recount their meetings. Each person views her in a different light, and we must come to understand her in this piecemeal fashion only through the perspective of others.
There’s a bohemian family of shepherds who used to be a part of the establishment but now live a rural, much simpler life taking care of livestock. The closest thing she has to a friend and a saint is a beautiful academic (Macha Méril), who has spent her life researching a fungus brought over during WWII that is slowly killing the local trees. She has a conscience and a warm spirit. Far from deterring her, the girl’s standoffish nature of cigarettes and glowering glances only seems to bring out greater adulation. There’s a hint her benefactor feels it too.
A Tunisian farmhand with a welcoming spirit is another person of generosity in her life. They seem to have nothing in common, and yet they bond because they have shared a similar experience of the world as perennial outsiders. He’s the only person she actually shares her birth name with: It’s Mona.
But our protagonist opens herself up only to get hurt. He offers to let her stay in their quarters and help take care of the local vineyards. It’s another brief promise of something beyond a drifter’s life, however small. Still, upon his coworkers’ return, they’re not agreeable to having a woman in their midst. She’s forced to push on again. It’s the life she’s used to, and yet the circumstances make the moment a far more painful point of departure.
There are signs that this is not sustainable no matter how romantic it might seem. Mona befriends an old white-haired lady slowly dying in her grand estate after posing as her maid. Would Mona have been a friend of Charles Foster Kane? This is the closest thing we have to answer, although it too becomes a closed door as the woman’s only kin, a young nephew is anxious to get what’s coming to him.
In a bit of serendipity worthy of Varda’s husband Jacques Demy, there is a kind of interwoven fate to these relationships as some of them begin to fold over on one another and interconnect with Mona in the middle. But this must not be mistaken for Providence.
Her lot becomes increasingly bleak, and there’s obvious intent here. There’s no other place to go. Whether Varda failed to show them before or not, I started to notice the makeshift carpet shoes Mona wears on her feet. She feels all the more pitiful falling in with dubious company and beginning to drink more.
She’s also accosted by some local practical jokers who run about town throwing paint bombs in a mad show of anarchy and artistic expression. There’s no rhyme or reason to it per se, although it leaves her more disillusioned and covered in brown paint that makes her look even more feeble than before. Then, a fire takes her belongings, and she must flee in the wake of an angry confrontation. She’s offered no respite.
At once such a proud and independent individual, she looks so dejected when we finally leave her shivering in her blanket trying to stay warm as a dog barks at her from right outside. It does feel as if the window has closed for her. She had glimpses of other lives and yet they all amounted to nothing. And she is left with nothing.
Freedom is such an exhilarating thing, not being totally beholden to the strictures of the world around us. But it’s equally terrifying being cast out into a life where we have no one to care for us, no one there to love or be loved by. Here again, Vagabond and Kane are so closely related. Whether we die in a luxurious bedroom or a ditch by the roadside, it doesn’t much matter. The outcomes are the same. There’s something ultimately deceptive and debilitating about their respective freedoms. It’s not freedom at all.