Writing about the latest from Agnès Jaoui yesterday made me think about another Agnès who makes movies in France: Varda, that great soul in a little body. Varda’s late-career autobiography, 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, was my first taste of her work. Since then, I’ve since seen only Cléo from 5 to 7, so the pleasure of watching everything else for the first time still lies ahead. Except for Vagabond, that is, since I watched that last night on Mubi.com, which is hosting a pretty comprehensive Varda retrospective.
Watching this matter-of-fact masterpiece made me wonder how much Gus Van Sant was thinking about Vagabond when he madeLast Days—and how much Varda herself thought about Mouchette, another poetic yet starkly realistic meditation on the final days of a doomed young protagonist, when she made her film. We first encounter Vagabond’s free-spirited Mona (Sondra Bonnaire) as a dead body in a ditch. The slow downward slide she takes in the flashbacks that follow include plenty of menacing or melancholy moments. But Varda’s film is much lighter than the other two, both tonally and literally, thanks to the lovely natural light that suffuses virtually every scene.
An unseen narrator who’s trying to puzzle out who Mona was and how she died interviews people who encountered her during her last year of life. Sometimes these “witnesses” talk to the camera or to a man we see only from behind, but mostly we see shards of Mona’s recent past play out. We learn about her less from anything she says than from her determined stride, amused glances, quick temper, and easy laugh, and from the un-self-conscious pleasure with which she does simple things like eating an apple or kissing one of the lovers she takes along the way. We also learn about the society she rejected. The people Mona comes across in her travels are no more simplistic than she is, so her interactions with them are often surprising, like when she shares a hearty laugh and some brandy with an elderly woman who comes alive only in Mona’s unpatronizing company, having been written off by her live-in companion and her few remaining relatives. But at least as often as she makes a temporary friend, Mona runs up against predatory men and people who can’t be trusted, like the duplicitous nephew who puts the old woman in a nursing home so he and his greedy wife can have her house.
Varda has a photographer’s eye, and the beautiful scenes she keeps laying at our feet are as full of life as Mona’s unfettered laugh. The camera has a habit of panning over a scene before Bonnaire walks into the frame or lingering after she’s gone on, so we can savor eloquent images like the shot of Mona and a bunch of other drifters she has briefly taken up with, all heaped together like alley cats, or the flustered goat she sees trying to escape as a boy circles it tightly on a moped and a barking dog keeps it jammed up against a tree. Or like Mona herself, drunk and boiling over with aimless energy, banging into the phone booth where—unbeknownst to her—that no-good nephew is justifying his decision to betray her. The unfocused anger Mona seems to be expressing there is more than justified, as Varda shows us. That nephew’s betrayal is just the last in a long line of selfish or thoughtless acts that land this vital young woman in that drainage ditch.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.