“Champagne on the road’s better”
When I saw Sans toit ni loi [Vagabond] for the first time as a twenty-year old in college, I did so believing its titular nomad Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) was the focal point. This was a mistake. I was bored—frustrated that I was forced to care about someone who obviously wanted to be alone and on the road. She’s resentful, temperamental, and above all else ungrateful when the kindness shown dries up. It’s not, “Thank you for the time we’ve spent together and the warmth and food you provided.” It’s, “To each his own” instead. In my mind she didn’t deserve anything more than the cold death in a ditch her life led her towards. So why should I deem her story a cinematic masterpiece?
From that perspective I shouldn’t. And it took me almost fifteen years to revisit the journey with a clear head willing to look past the drifter to those she touches, those who implicitly and explicitly set her on her destined path. A friend mentioned a comparison I hadn’t conjured that’s brilliant in its simplicity: Vagabond as Citizen Kane. Both begin with the lead’s death before rewinding to answer a central mystery. The latter’s is the meaning of “Rosebud” and the former the demise of a young woman forgotten in the winter cold. They consist of flashbacks told from the perspective of those who knew them—some remembering generosity, some selfish ego beyond reproach, and still more who saw a mirror inward at their own dreams and regret.
Bonnaire’s Mona is still a stunningly rendered character built from a performance deserving of every award bestowed on the then seventeen-year old actress. She embodies this wandering (withering?) lifestyle, a walking contradiction of innocent beauty and a prickly strength ensuring everyone knew she was exactly where she chose to be. If they wanted to help it was because they wanted to do so. Mona isn’t interested in charity as much as a reason to stay with another human being worthy of her time and patience. She believes she’s found this person more than once, but circumstances always arrive to remind everyone involved that she’s an unknown stranger. She’s alone and—in context of the film—a necessary cautionary tale that ultimately drives Vagabond‘s message home.
Mona becomes less a person than a thing to these people. She’s a sexual body to men, a daughter in need to women, a false ideal to some voyeurs, and a misjudged monster to others. How she’s perceived says more about the viewer than herself, though. Only Great Aunt Lydie (Marthe Jarnias) lets appearance, odor, and judgment disappear to see a young woman genuinely worth befriending. After so many false starts, unsolicited preaching, and tragic miscues, a brief moment between Mona and Lydie finds unbridled joy at the bottom of a Brandy bottle. It’s no surprise to learn the old woman is as forgotten and ignored as her young friend. Both are dismissed as worthless loafers needing others to survive. Such an underestimation proves society’s sad flaw.
Agnès Varda‘s film of mostly unknowns found in the very French wine country of its setting transforms into an exposé of mankind’s self-centered nature. It shows how we make everything about ourselves even when we’ve nothing to do with the original event sparking us into action. Yolande (Yolande Moreau‘s feature debut) spies Mona and new beau David (Patrick Lepcynski) in the throes of what she perceives as love in order to look at her own relationship and want more; Madame Landier (Macha Méril)—despite the sympathy manifested after a near-death experience—sees Mona as a poor creature her affluent compassion can save. By introducing the latter explaining her “good deed” on the phone, we understand her bourgeois saint-complex. Had we seen her helping first, we’d think empathy instead.
That ability to empathize, however, is non-existent. There’s always a chasm between Mona and her acquaintances built of half-truths and convenience. Varda juxtaposing what actually happens with vignettes of these periphery characters talking directly into the camera as though interviewed allows us to cut through the lies. The most egregious example is Landier in her bath recounting her charity, but her protégée Jean-Pierre (Stéphane Freiss) isn’t far behind. Here’s a man surrounded by strong women—his wife provides his backbone—yet fears Mona’s strength and freedom. Hiding behind his assumption she doesn’t recognize him later on, he stays out of sight in case her memory jogs. He calls her ugly and vile because he needs her to be so in order to accept his life choices as superior.
The film’s full of such moments whether a goat herder lording the fact that his own nomadic life is more just because he went to school and chose to live off the land despite it or an auto-mechanic turning up his nose at her memory because she was dirty and uncouth despite our knowing he was the depraved soul of their pairing. Here’s this horrible brat of a girl we project our own preconceptions about the homeless upon and yet we hate those attempting to help more than her. At least she isn’t pretending to be someone she isn’t. If something better comes along she’ll take it and leave you behind. But she’s not promising you security, love, or shelter before pulling out the rug like the rest.
They let her in, make her comfortable, and eventually come to their senses once foggy impressions of her helplessness fade to reveal a legitimate threat. “She can get the old woman I thought was blind to laugh? What if she takes my job?” “Wait, this disgusting girl isn’t trapped by her boss or domineering spouse like me? I better transform my fear into revulsion because I’d rather be controlled then left in the streets to fend for myself.” For some reason this girl who should be begging for escape is happier than them and it’s scary. It makes them question everything they’ve ever done and wonder what went wrong. Her anonymous death isn’t therefore a tragedy—it’s validation that their existential suffering is worth not dying alone.