Matters of Perspective
At one moment in Vagabond, the central character and the drifter of the title, Mona, gets told by another character, a man with a master's in philosophy and who now looks after goats with his partner and child, that her head is full of rubbish. Agnes Varda's achievement here is to acknowledge the pertinence of the man's remark, without at all necessarily holding to the judgement his comment contains. How can one's head be full of rubbish, and yet at the same time have enough wisdom to know that the life most people are leading is as futile, perhaps more futile, than one's own? When in another scene Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) says to the philosophy graduate that what he is doing doesn't really differ from her own attitude to life, Varda doesn't seem to expect us to read it as an especially vacuous comment. Superficially Mona would appear to be talking nonsense: the man has a partner and a child, rises early, works hard and makes money from selling, amongst other things, goat's cheese. He is a sort of self-made man, made out of the philosophy he has read and the work he now does. But there seems to be a dull sanctimoniousness as well that marks him out not as unreliable but perhaps unsympathetic, whilst Varda seems interested in the soul of people more than their actions. In this sense the soul cannot be reliable or unreliable, sensible or stupid, but yearning for experiences, for something above and beyond the mundane.
In one scene Mona explains that she was lined up for a life in secretarial work, and so it would seem even the horrible conditions she often finds herself in are better than the stultification of a day job. There is a scene where we see her waking in a frozen field, camping in a thin tent. Frequently other characters comment on her smell, and though she is first viewed coming out of the sea, it is probably the only proper wash she gets throughout the film, which appears to cover at least a month or two. Rather than exploring Mona's reasoning for her societal retreat, Varda sensibly searches out the lifestyle someone must accept if they're going to eschew home comforts and discomforts. What Varda makes clear is that Mona's is a life of risk, and within this life there are pleasures and displeasures, and both of these are no more than perspectives on that life - for we shouldn't forget that Vagabond is a film of perspectives as it offers numerous points of view on Mona's last few weeks.
Vagabond generally takes the form of an enquiry after the event. The opening scene details the discovery of Mona's body, and the film looks at numerous characters who met her during that period. The film however has no narrative figure investigating the life, and sometimes characters talk directly to the camera, sometimes relate events to others. The film neither utilises a Citizen Kane-like investigator, as with Thatcher in Welles's film, nor relies on a flashback structure where the investigation is the film itself. It is as though it doesn't want the conceit of a narrative consciousness, or invisibility of narrative, but a disconcerting directness. When for example one character, Yolande, looks directly into the camera and talks of how much she yearns for a moment like the one where she spied Mona and a lover lying in bed together in an apparently empty mansion, the directness of feeling is well-captured in the directness of the look at the camera. This is distanciation functioning as emotional immediacy, and an ambivalent moment as well because though we can understand this young woman's feelings, at the same time we may question the reliability of her narration. The brief fling Mona had in the house seemed to carry less emotional significance for her than it does for Yolande when we see it from another perspective. Just as the film is an investigation into the end of Mona's life, we may note it is also, in the process of the investigation, a series of projections. Like Citizen Kane but even more so, it is a projective investigation, with multiple points of view telling us simultaneously about Mona, and about the people offering these angles.
One of the most sympathetic figures Mona meets is surely the tree specialist played also by the film's biggest star, Macha Meril, probably best known for Godard's Une Femme Mariee from the mid-sixties. In a scene that could ostensibly look like a digression, Meril's character, Mrs Lantier, gets electrocuted and luckily saved by a colleague who is sitting in the room next door. She tells him her life flashed before her, and especially scenes of Mona. Worried how Mona might be, after leaving her with some food and money as Mona ventured into a field, Lantier wants to try and find her. Lantier is obviously the opposite of Mona, maybe more than any character in the film, and at the same time the most empathic, the one where the projective and the investigative come together most truthfully, or rather the position that we might assume is the closest to Varda's: a professional woman with an interest in someone apparently very different from herself. Though Lantier appears the farthest away from Mona, in stable employment, with a nice car, and social status, she has that empathic capacity for seeing the flipside of her own identity. When her life flashes before her and she keeps seeing images of Mona, this of course has an analogy in the film as the last few week of Mona's life pass, if you like, in front of the viewer.
The original French title translates as roughly without a roof over one's head, and there is an interesting irony here where we notice the degree to which Mona impacts on people but that she doesn't at all function socially. Her vagabondage gives her paradoxically a strong identity but a weak social self. She impacts upon people rather than functions amongst them, so that while the former props up one's social role, the latter calls it into question. By coming into contact with Mona people can no longer take their social assumptions for granted, and so in the context of the film she becomes a question mark twice over. In the first instance through her death, as people are questioned about her, and secondly in her very existence, in that she creates questions in people who met her in the last period of her life.
Mona's doesn't seem like the suicidal death that takes everybody by surprise, with the suicide itself motivating the question. After all, hers isn't strictly speaking a suicide. Partly what is so interesting about Varda's film is that the motivated questions were already there in relation to her life. The death gives the people the opportunity to take some of these questions further, but initial questions were already being asked. One vineyard owner, who allows her to stay in the workers' accommodation, says he knew it would happen, but doesn't explain what he means by this, though he's clearly given her life some thought. The Moroccan worker who had asked the boss if she could stay, when interviewed simply smells the scarf she once wore.
What the film draws out well is the difference between functioning in life and impacting upon other people's, and brings to mind another 'drop-out' film, Time Out, and its director Laurent Cantet's comment in a Cineaste interview that work isn't meant for everyone. In Cantet's film a man pretends still to be working when he has long since lost his job; his family still believe he is employed as the gap between his social function and his personal existence grows. In Vagabond there is no such gap as Mona chooses to allow her lack of a function to raise questions. Where most expect that their relationship with others is based on possessing a functional role in society (and it's this that keeps Cantet's protagonist from telling people the reality of his unemployed status), Mona's impression on others is centrally based on this refusal to see herself functionally.
Throughout the film she chooses inactivity over activity, loafing over work. When the Moroccan works the vineyards, clipping the vines, Mona lie down smoking a cigarette. The philosophy graduate comments on Mona lying in bed till midday, while they're up at dawn working. Throughout the film Varda gives us scenes that could easily judge the character, yet she withholds not only biography as we find out very little about Mona's background, but more especially judgement. Biography in such circumstances might be the most obvious way to curtail judging a character who is superficially lazy, impolite and ungrateful (she doesn't even say thanks when Mrs Lantier gives the food and money), as well as casually promiscuous. An appalling childhood, abusive bosses and hurtful lovers could all be deployed to contextualize feelings towards a character without too many apparently redeeming features in her present actions: Varda could have given us a past that redeems Mona's present. Instead Varda withholds judgement more through absence than presenting back story, through musing and intently observing her behaviour instead of assuming a position of certitude upon which to judge it positively or negatively. How can the filmmaker find a position whereby the terms of social discourse - being polite, hard-working, conscientious etc - become irrelevant next to the personal exploration of character?
Late in the film Mona is drunk and stoned in Nimes train station, and Mrs Lantier's assistant recognizes her and makes a phone call to someone saying he has seen Mona. As he says "If you could see her, she's revolting, a wreck. It makes me sick," he also adds "I'm telling you but I wouldn't tell Mrs Lantier." He mentions that he understands this confusion, that he's lost himself sometimes, and yet what he feels is more fear than empathy, more about how a human descends, than the specifics of Mona's collapse. His response may remind us of the philosophy graduate's and his remark that Mona wasn't wandering she was withering. The graduate is at least in a better position to judge: he has lost friends this way, where the loneliness ate them up and lead to drink and drugs. Yet still he offers it as a judgement, and thus seems unreliable on the film's terms.
Earlier we proposed the film was a retrospective look at Mona's existence. This is only partly true, for there are moments where someone comments on Mona's life as though they are talking about her after she has died, but then we realize this isn't the case In one scene, Yolande talks about Mona whilst at the railway station. Talking directly to the camera she wonders what happened to Mona, after believing she thought she saw her. As she speaks Yolande looks screen right and the camera cuts away to show her through glass looking at a young woman and old man seated on a bench. The young woman is a fellow squatter whom we've witnessed in the previous scene, and shortly afterwards we see Mona herself.
Such an approach achieves at least two things. One is a potentially greater sense of culpability; the other the importance of perspective. As certain people speak guiltily abut not doing more for Mona, isn't there not potentially more bad faith in their words than if she is already dead, where they can't do anything about her demise? Yet Varda wouldn't seem to want to arrive at judgements of her own; which is where perspective comes in. Not only do we have numerous perspectives on Mona, there are also differing perspectives on other characters also. For example the old man we see talking animatedly to the girl who looks a bit like Mona, is also the one who shortly before that seemed to dismiss Mona when she tried to sell him a silver item. Mrs Lantier's assistant is also the grandson of the old woman Yolande looks after, an elderly woman that at one moment in the film Mona befriends. In the granny's eyes he is just waiting for her to pass away, and the granny, Yolande and Mona all contribute to our sense of seeing him as after the money. But he is also the man who saves Mrs Lantier's life, and in scenes with his partner he seems easily to be the most sensitive of the pair. In Varda's film judgements can be no more than perspectives and we might even wonder if the film works finally off a certain paradox: that Mona drops out to avoid the judgements of society, but the film itself is the sum total of those judgements nevertheless.
Yet this is where the film's importance perhaps finally lies. Mona wants the freedom to live on her own terms, yet the film is the sum total of the opposite: the accumulated observations of those of others. The film possesses a Cubist sense of characterization. But at the same time Varda seems interested in making out of these observations an overriding perspective that helps make sense of Mona's choices on her own terms. This is where we can return to the idea of eschewing back-story. Just as Mona barely cares to reveal her past, neither does Varda. Just as Mona wants it seems little more than survival and various encounters, so Varda illustrates exactly this. There is a provisional aspect here constantly being offered, as if the film is saying this not so much an investigation at all, finally, but a perspective. The film's insistence on showing even peripheral characters like the assistant from different points of view, as a different person in different circumstances, adds to the sense that a person cannot be understood by an external outlook. However that doesn't mean all external viewpoints are the same, nor that these 'superficial' perspectives are irrelevant. But the accumulation of positions manages to two do things: to allow the film to ignore the reasons for her wandering, and equally, though, to give us a sense of who Mona happens to be, from the various angles upon which she is viewed.
Fifteen years later Varda would of course return to the 'problem' of the outsider in the much more cheerful documentary The Gleaners and I, where she talked to numerous people who lived from gleaning in its many contemporary forms and especially through people living semi-homeless or on the streets. It seemed almost like an attempt to find still another angle on the problem of dropping out of society. It was also a much more optimistic one, and Varda, an invisible presence here, puts herself right at the centre of the later film as a sort of drop-out and gleaner of her own. The digital camera and the gathering of images allow her to come into contact with numerous people as well, but where Mona is a young woman without status and power, Varda possesses both. But, rather perhaps like Mrs Lantier, she doesn't abuse it. She knows, as she had earlier explored in Vagabond, that this is, after all, only a point of view.
© Tony McKibbin