Vagabond Movie Review

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The English title of Agnès Varda's 1985 masterpiece is accurate enough: The film tells the story of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young homeless woman who wanders the French countryside during the course of one winter, scrounging for food and shelter before she freezes to death in a ditch. But I prefer the French title, "Without Roof or Rule," because it better encapsulates what Varda successfully does: provide a sort of essay about the meaning of freedom, not just a film about aimless roving. Mona's free-spiritedness has a seductive quality - she seems to generate envy in just about everybody who crosses her path. But Varda powerfully shows how there's an inherent brutality to living without rules, and she does it without ever devolving into melodrama or didacticism.

Mona isn't a particularly likeable heroine. Wearing a perpetual smirk and constantly angling for a sandwich or a handout, Bonnaire's portrayal is downright feral, as if she's gotten to the core of basic human need. And she sadly devolves into the occasional act of self-degradation like sleeping with men for shelter. But she has a snotty, punkish character that makes her compelling to watch - and appealing to the people who cross her path. The brilliance of Vagabond is that while it's essentially a film about poverty, Mona collapses class distinctions. She works in a vineyard with other poor laborers, but she also lives large in a chateau and gets taken in by a well-to-do professor. In brief faux interviews interspersed in the film, people who've met her reminisce about how much more interesting their lives became because Mona was briefly part of it.

But the homeless life hollows Mona out; her short-term pals miss that because they were so entranced by the freedom her life represented. And we, as viewers, can't help but be seduced a little too. Varda presents some lovely scenery of the ruins and landscapes and buildings and mansions that Mona inhabits - Mona gets to know more of her surrounding area than most of us likely will. But she has to do it fast, often, and joylessly, and inevitably there's a price to be paid for that. In Vagabond (and also in her fine 2000 documentary, The Gleaners & I), Varda depicts the genuine hardships of homeless people, but she never devolves into simplistic or melodramatic attitudes about homelessness. That's the sort of thing, Varda argues, that only perpetuates the problem.

Aka Sans toit ni loi.

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Vagabond Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1985

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