Thursday, 29 May 2008

Vagabond (Varda, 1985)

Agnès Varda's deceptively simple observations about a girl who willfully drifts on the peripheries of society are packed with resonance. Her decision to intersperse the action with "interview" footage from those that "knew" the girl (Mona) is inspired, providing the audience with a variety of perspectives that contribute to the unique prism through which we view Mona's life. These testimonies don't entirely correlate with Mona's on-screen actions, but they're fascinating examples of the ways in which human beings view one another, and they simultaneously highlight the concept of the unreliable narrator. Take Yolande for example, who romanticizes Mona and her brief fling with a fellow drifter as a portrait of idyllic love after their first 'meeting' (in reality, it's simply somewhere for Mona to sleep and smoke a joint or few), before villifying her after their second encounter when she threatens to encroach upon the sanctity of both Yolande's job and her relationship. On both occasions, Yolande's own concerns take precedent over any attempt to understand Mona's situation, thus begging the question: just how much do we really know and understand about brief acquaintances such as this? By having the viewer witness Mona's final days as she herself pieces them together, Varda manages to illuminate the film with some lofty themes: the transience of life; and perhaps more importantly, the difficulty of truly comprehending it.

Varda's unassuming direction allows the viewer to remain neglectful of the fact that Mona/Varda's journey is one that traverses the breadth of (then-)contemporary French society until late into the film - by which point the director's critique re: the inability of Mona's former companions to prevent her fate has considerably sharpened. The final act, rife with a series of coincidences and a downright bizarre paint fight of sorts, alludes to a society in chaos (although the strength of such allegory is debatable). "Society" is a potent presence throughout this piece: Mona's predicament (presumably) occurs through her continual defiance of that which is socially acceptable. Mona even disregards an opportunity provided by reformed hippies who sympathize with her plight and offer her a chance to succeed on the peripheries of the "system"; and one of the most humorous yet telling encounters finds a prostitute asking her to leave her turf because she's "bad for business". Varda deftly reveals how materialism is a fundamental part of life, and by relinquishing the former Mona effectively sabotages the latter.

No one is willing to help Mona on her own terms, but Mona isn't necessarily looking for help. Varda's matter-of-fact presentation never explicitly asks any questions of either viewer or character. This stark but sincere depiction of life outside accepted norms lacks the venom to function as a diatribe against French society as a whole. Furthermore, Mona's rebellion is one that Varda refrains from romanticizing or moralizing (as some of the film's ancedotes do). The director's refusal to provide any real background for this character combines with her documentarian approach to reinforce the integrity of what's on-screen. Mona exists, Mona expires, and there's little more to it. Vagabond's ability to so directly expose this tenuous hold on one's existence is the source of its genius.

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