Sans toit ni loi

(Vagabond, France - 1985)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Meril, Yolande Moreau
Genre: Drama
Director: Agnes Varda
Screenplay: Agnes Varda
Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Composer: Joanna Bruzdowicz
Runtime: 105 minutes

"I don't care, I move" - Mona Bergeron

It's the middle of a frozen sunless winter; the landscape of Southern France filled with the browns and tans of mud and dead plants. A cold, dark, desolate atmosphere permeates every frame; the colors pale and strained. The sad, somber sounds of violins are heard in the background as Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) passes one large open wasteland after another. The land she walks has already withered, and she's slowly joining it.

Agnes Varda's great film opens with a worker finding Mona frozen to death in a ditch. The concept is that the narrator (Varda) has made a film about the last weeks in the life of this unknown girl that many people saw, but no one really knew. What interests the narrator is this girl who now lies in potter's field left no trace for those who may have really known her - her family, old friends, the people she grew up with - but she marked the lives of those who happened upon her for a few hours. We'll never know if these people, who don't even know her name or that she died, are the only ones still thinking about her. However, their recollections give us a sense of who they are and what she was like.

"I thought she was a homebody, the staying kind" complains one person in the film who "knows" her as well as anybody after she used him for a few days and took off. Mona doesn't follow any traditional logic, if any logic at all. She is unknowable because she is the most individual of individuals. She doesn't connect with anybody; a liar trapped in a dream (or nightmare) world that quickly moves on while the going is still "good." "All drivers talk to their rides" she says, "So I make things up…" She experiences everything, or nothing, all on her own. She lives for the moment, meeting people by chance and breaking off for the solitude of her road on whim.

Mona is a nihilistic outsider. She became a vagrant to get away from bosses, rules, order, and people in general. Her life is a myth because by being a wanderer, she's forced to depend on people far more. Sure, they are always different people, but without them she's stuck freezing in her thin little tent at night without any food to eat.

Mona likes two things, listening to music and smoking grass. She relies on the kindness of strangers for both. In turn, she is not particularly nice to them. They know - or at least should - that she's going to use them when they pick her up, but she does not make the slightest attempt to be agreeable, much less kind. A truck driver picks her up and within 30 seconds she's making fun of his truck ("What a heap! Not even a radio!). She bangs on a door asking for water and when the woman offers use of the outdoor pump, she giggles "That thing?"

As you may have noticed, Mona is very nervy. Someone picks her up; she sits down in their car and puts their radio on. She asks to bum a cigarette, then takes half the pack. She doesn't sell cheese for the farmers; she swipes some to sell so she has a little money when she leaves them. The biggest freedom Mona gets from being a vagabond is she can speak her mind. As nobody knows her, she can flip a guy that gets sick of her ingratitude off and walk down the street knowing some other sucker will pick her up. She's gone before she garners a bad reputation, so she's free to be as irresponsible as she feels like.

Under the guise of remembering the vagabond, everyone is really talking about their own lives. One friend complains to another that he has to pay 2 francs for a picture of a naked woman when they could have had a real one on the beach if the other didn't chicken out. This offers us no direct information about Mona, but in the end we realize this was her last swim in the ocean. Although Mona doesn't say a word in this scene, the guys talking about her being nuts to go into that water ("I wouldn't do it. Maybe for a grand.") explains why she doesn't go in again as the weather grows colder. As we get to know Mona though, we realize she totally rejects any form of cleanliness (a symbol of the society she rebels against) and probably was only swimming to pass some time.

The people Mona runs into have no idea what her life is really like. Many see what she has that they don't. The woman who gives her pump water feels going without food sometimes would be worth it to be "free." Yolande (Yolande Moreau), a lonely middle-aged housekeeper who supports a disinterested boyfriend that's so young he's mistaken for her nephew, sees Mona and a self proclaimed wandering Jew sleeping cuddled up next to each other in her uncle's chateau. Although she likes his music and "his place" is comfortable enough for her, Mona leaves this guy once she goes through his month's supply of grass in four days. Based on the few seconds Yolande observes them together, Yolande's gives this interpretation of their "eternal love" to her uncaring playboy when he's being mean to her, "I know a couple so gentle. They're always together: they eat, smoke, sleep together, they listen to music." A street worker who buys some stolen cheese from Mona determines "She's got character. She knows what she wants." She tells her husband "If I'd sent you packing at her age, I'd be better off. Marry the wrong and you're stuck for life."

Those who aren't attracted by Mona's life are repelled by it. I'd say they are smarter for not admiring anything she "has," but really they are the more cynical type that pigeonhole her into their narrow visions of the world. A gas station owner who trusted her to wash one car but not to pump gas concludes, "Female drifters, all alike, just loaf and chase men." The foreman of the vineyard takes a girl camping in winter as a sign that times have changed. He wishes his daughter wasn't a tomboy who rides motor bikes all the time she's not working in a jockey-short factory.

We slowly see something of ourselves in the vagabond's life. The chances that we squandered, the people that we grew apart from, the people that we knew but never really did. Maybe we like what we see, maybe we don't, probably it's somewhere in between. The specifics don't matter. That we can relate to it and it makes us think about the point and meaning of our own lives are some of the big reasons it's such a strong, lingering film.

There's enough balance in Mona between what we can relate to, what we long for, and what we detest and abhor about her to make the film work. Although much of the film shows the consequences of Mona's "freedom," the message is not against Mona's lifestyle. It's about the need for an alternative to the life society has stuck most people with - a life the reigns you in, crushes your dreams, withers your hope, and ultimately makes you go through the motions. Mona is heroic because she's the rebel against a life of confinement and boredom, but Varda doesn't have the answer other than Mona's destitute largely joyless alternative is not any kind of solution.

A few people Mona runs into are particularly important in defining as much as we'll ever know about who she really is. She stays on a farm with the family of a philosopher who went back to the soil. This goat and sheep herder understands her better than anyone because he's had similar experiences. He tells her "The time comes when if you go on, you destroy yourself" and tries to save her from the loneliness that ate up his friends that kept wandering. She tells them she'd like a piece of land to grow potatoes, so not only does he offer her a large chunk of land, he says he'll plow and harrow it for her. Him and his wife busts their asses taking care of the farm all day, but Mona sleeps, smokes, stares aimlessly, and generally makes a mess of the trailer they let her stay in. Finally he can't take it anymore. She gets aggressive calling him a dropout because she can't or won't see things from his point of view. He tells her "You're no dropout, you're just out. You don't exist." Then she goes on to her next story about what she'd do, this time her excuse for not making something of herself is that she didn't study like him. Later we find out that Mona came from a middle class home, graduated vocational school, speaks solid English, and knows shorthand typing, but if you believe her she gave all her skills up because "Champagne on the road's better!" The goat herder tells her "You're a dreamer," and she leaves because she didn't go on the road to find another boss.

She meets a college professor, Mrs. Landier (Macha Meril), who inspects dead plane-trees. Mona thinks Landier's work - trying to stop the plague that will kill all the trees - is dumb. Landier tells her, "But to do nothing to stop the plague is even dumber!" Mona simply responds, "Anyway…" Mona's new idea is that she'd be a baby sitter if she had the right look or a caretaker of houses. Sometimes you wonder if she's looking for these people to direct her, and if so only so she can balk at them bossing her. Probably she's just passing the time. Landier feeds Mona, gives her money and smokes, puts up with Mona's stench and falling asleep while she's telling her about herself. She does it because she feels sorry for Mona and guilty that she can't save her, but also because it gives her a kind of one-woman freak show to tell her friends about.

"She blew in like the wind. No plans, no goals, no wishes, no wants. We suggested things to her. She didn't want to do a thing. Wandering? That's withering! By proving she's useless, she helps a system she rejects. It's not wandering, it's withering" - philosopher/herder

Mona seems almost willing to surrender and settle down with an equally dirty Tunisian vine cutter Yahiaoui Assouna (himself), actually taking a little lesson from him and going to work along side him. This is the only time that neither party wants to break up, but Mona having to hit the road again just magnifies her life as a plethora of wasted opportunities.

Aunt Lydie (Marthe Jarnias), a blind old woman with a large house who doesn't have anybody that cares about her, takes a liking to Mona because neither has anything to do and both are very cynical. They get drunk together and giggle about her nephew the vulture. The drunken grandmother just cracks me up when she talks about knowing her nephew wants her house because he comes over with flowers telling her she's in great shape today.

One interesting aspect of the film is how many characters are somehow interconnected. Not only does Mona effect the solitary lives of those she runs into, she unknowingly alters their relationships with others. Yolande is still in her dream world even though she knows the "eternal lovers" have broken up. She just brought Mona to Lydie's house because she was so lonely working in the house of a woman that can't see her and doesn't know her, but over the course of a few hours her paranoia that Mona will steal her young lover and her job has grown out of control. Clinging to the bits of her unsatisfying life that she can call hers, Yolande runs Mona out of Lydie's house. Yolande is fired by the vulture nephew on the charge of her boyfriend (more likely Mona if it really happened) stealing something of Lydie's, which conveniently allows the vulture to swoop down on Lydie's house by putting her in an old folks home. Mona doesn't have much in the way of morals, so if she had any ambition she probably could have seized the caretaker job (granted only to be fired), but she just kicks Yolande's shoes off into the ceiling and retreats to the road, as always.

We get to piece bits of information about Mona together, but Mona remains an almost impossible character to read. The film is about a personal journey, not what set it adrift. Like each person she meets, Mona always remains enigmatic to the viewer as well. She seems to want to love life, but not know how or perhaps even why. At times she seems to be enjoying herself, even verging on connecting with someone, but it's as if she rejects the very idea. What we can clearly see is how she slowly wears down, drifts out of existence. There's not any one scene you can point to, it's just a gradual giving up on this life as well, feeling it's equally hopeless and not worth continuing.

Wearing the same clothes for so long, she's lucky that only her boots fall apart. Although a pretty girl, she's so dirty and smelly that her appeal, which obviously tends to be the reason men do anything for her, is minimal. As her appearance declines, it's almost like her humanity does as well. She starts to seem more like an alien life form, or maybe an animal. Ever she seems surprised at what she's slowly become. It's sad and kind of scary to watch, but powerful because it's presented without any hammy melodrama. You feel for the poor lost young girl the most when she's repulsing you maximum during her lowest hour because the story has been so focused, the performance so stunning, and the filmmaking so confident not because some heavy-handed manipulative Spielberg type is telling you cry now.

Sandrine Bonnaire is an actress whose mystique is captivating. She works here in glances, smiles, giggles, staggers, and stumbles. She plays Mona with a real sense of defiance, a swagger to go along with her carefree disaffected attitude. This is another role where she doesn't have many lines, but your eyes are glued to her waiting for that piece of information that will explain Mona and wondering what Mona will have the audacity to do. Probably the most telling thing you get is that there seems to be nothing behind her empty gaze, showing Mona is using the people rather than bonding with them. The actions of Bonnaire's character are out of the ordinary - especially for a film - but her Mona is a very natural believable character, a real person. In most roles you create your character - justify her actions - based on the interpretation of their motivations. Here, she's almost always on the screen and it's imperative to the success of the movie that she be compelling playing a character that has no motivation, goes about an entirely aimless life. Mona certainly isn't afraid to make a public scene, but unlike the majority of performers, Bonnaire never falls prey to overacting these. Bonnaire also deserves credit for taking such an unglamorous role. There are roles where you look bad, and then there's this where you wander around in the same grungy clothes the whole film with increasing amounts of dirt and grime covering your visible skin. Not only is she denied any gleam of her beauty, she's not given a single "Oscar moment." There's no flash, only substance that accrues over the course of time. I thought Bonnaire was better than Cesar winner Isabelle Huppert, another wonderful performer, in the great Claude Chabrol film La Ceremonie, although neither were as good as Emmanuelle Beart in the great Claude Sautet film Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud. In any case, out of her six Meilleure actrice (best actress) nominations, Sans loit ni loi (ironically her first nomination) is the only performance she won for (she's probably been ripped off several times). I can't speak about all the competition, but certainly this is as award worthy a performance as they come. It contains nothing that feels false or even seems acted.

Agnes Varda has made this unromantic film as kind of a cross between her film backgrounds - the French new wave, which she helped pioneer, and documentary. In new wave tradition, she uses a cast of largely unknown if not unprofessional actors. The scenes where we meet these people who recall their encounter with Mona are almost straight documentary, interviews establishing where on her journey Varda has come across these people. These brief scenes give way to flashbacks that, if this were real, would be reenactments of their encounters with Mona. These are shot in 3rd person objective and generally utilize wide angles that, when not casting its unfocused detached eye upon Mona's aimlessness, linger on or track her bleak, stunted surroundings. Where Varda excels as a filmmaker is making you share her curiosity and caring for real (or seemingly real depending if it's actual documentary or documentary style) human beings, and making their trials and tribulations evoke your own.

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