Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi)

(Sans toit ni loi)
Director: Agnès Varda
Screenplay: Agnès Varda
Stars: Sandrine Bonnaire (Mona Bergeron), Macha Méril (Mme. Landier), Stephane Freiss (Jean-Pierre), Yolande Moreau (Yolande), Patrick Lepczynski (David), Yahiaoui Assouna (Assoun), Joël Fosse (Paulo), Marthe Jarnias (Tante Lydie), Laurence Cortadellas (Eliane)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1985
Country: France
Vagabond: Criterion Collection DVD
VagabondIn Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), Sandrine Bonnaire, who first captured audiences with her screen debut as a strong-willed teenager in Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours (1983), plays Mona, a homeless 18-year-old in the south of France during a particularly brutal winter. We know from the start that things will not turn out well for her because, in the film’s opening scene, a farm worker discovers her stiff, frozen corpse in a ditch. With no way to identify her, the police bury her body in a potter’s field, and the rest of the film then unfolds in a series of fragmented episodes covering the final weeks of her life. The episodic nature of the non-narrative is punctuated by short documentary-like interviews in which people whose paths crossed with Mona’s talk about her, which creates a patchwork subjective portrait of an ultimately unknowable girl.

Mona is the very epitome of alienation, and each of her encounters bears witness to the impossibility of her connecting with a society of which she wants no part. Sometimes the people she meets only want to use or exploit her, and sometimes she only wants to use or exploit them; she may suffer, but she is never a victim. At other times, people want to help her--a college professor engaged in research on dying trees, a couple of academic drop-outs-turned-goat herders, a maid taking care of an elderly woman, and a Tunisian vineyard worker all offer her shelter, work, and a chance to resettle into society. And, in each case, the connection eventually breaks down, sometimes by Mona’s fault, sometimes by the fault of those she encounters. Nevertheless, each episode illustrates Mona’s essential aloneness, which is underlined most explicitly by the friendly goat farmer, who happens to have a master’s degree in philosophy and wants her to adopt the same “return to the land” view of life that has given his meaning. “By proving that she’s useless, she helps a system she rejects,” he says. “It’s not wandering, it’s withering.” And while it sounds condescending, it’s arguably not far off the mark.

Mona is, in many ways, a child who is pleasant when she gets what she wants and sullen when denied. Despite her continued proclamations that she wants to be alone, the very fact that she continuously engages with others and allows herself to be drawn into their worlds is testament to her underlying need for some form of human connection. When she is rejected, as she is by the Tunisian vineyard worker whose comrades don’t appreciate her presence, she responds with what can only be described as a tantrum. Neither fully adult nor fully child, Mona is an enigma from the first frame to the last, which makes Vagabond both entrancing and slightly frustrating.

Because Varda keeps the film so resolutely externalized and Mona is such a closed-off, protective character, the film has a certain coldness and distance to it. We never get to understand Mona as an individual, only as a kind of archetype--the independent puzzle piece who never fits and therefore rejects everything except herself. However, this is the very point of the film. Mona is an intractable subject and can never be fully known; that is Varda’s particularly modernist project, and we can see the film as a variation on Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), albeit without all the aesthetic flourishes and baroque visual design. Varda strives in every frame to refrain from romanticizing Mona, which is why the original French title, which literally translates to “Without Roof or Law” is so much more appropriate than the American title, which carries with it a hint of excitement and adventure.

The bare and barren visual approach Varda takes to Vagabond enhances its distance and makes it seem that much more remote. The film unfolds against a frozen landscape that is all browns and grays, and the sky never seems to break. The world around Mona is reflected in her appearance, which is dirty and unkempt, something that is frequently remarked upon by those she meets. In an ironic early scene, Varda shows Mona emerging naked from the ocean and suggests that that is where she began, rather than as a technical school-trained secretary who rejected conformity and society and decided to live and eventually die on her own terms. Regardless of where she began, we know where she ends, and the haunting nature of those opening images hang like a shadow over her final weeks, inviting us to see in her a glimpse of both the beauties and tragedies of that slippery thing we call freedom.

Vagabond Criterion Collection DVD
4 by Agnès VardaVagabond is available as part of the Criterion Collection’s “4 by Agnès Varda” box set. The box also includes La Pointe Courte (1954), Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), and Le bonheur (1964).
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Remembrances retrospective documentary
  • “The Story of an Old Lady” featurette
  • “Music and Dolly Shots” featurette
  • 1986 radio interview with Varda and writer Nathalie Sarraute
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New essay by Chris Darke and written introduction by Agnes Varda
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.96 (box set)
    Release DateJanuary 22, 2008

    Previously available from Criterion in a nonanamorphic widescreen transfer ported over from their laserdisc days, Vagabond has been given a new high-definition anamorphic transfer from a 35mm interpositive that was supervised by Varda. The new transfer improves on clarity, sharpness, and detail, although colors maintain the same, dank, muted scheme that Varda intended. The overall look of the film is intentionally wintry, with even the brightest colors looking dirty and faded. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm soundtrack, has been digitally restored and sounds excellent.
    Remembrances, which was made in 2003, is a 40-minute retrospective documentary directed and narrated by Varda. The film is peppered with interviews from 2003, but also from the time of the film’s release, which include Varda and actresses Sandrine Bonnaire and Macha Méril. “The Story of an Old Lady” is an intriguing three-minute film shot on 16mm that has since molded to the point that some of it is completely obscured. It shows footage of Varda talking with Marthe Jarnias, the actress who played Aunt Lydie in the film, as well as bits from an earlier film in which Jarnias was cast. Oddly, the description of this film on the DVD is completely misleading because it suggests it contrains an interview between Varda and Jarnias from 2003, which it does not. “Music and Dolly Shots” is a 12-minute featurette composed of a conversation between Varda and composer Joanna Bruzdowicz recorded in 2003. Also included on the disc are 9 minutes of excerpts from a 1986 radio interview with Varda and fiction writer Nathalie Sarraute, whose works inspired the film and to whom it is dedicated, and a theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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