July 29, 2008

Varda's Vagabond


Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): *****

The most recent, yet least-known, film from Criterion's Agnes Varda box set, Vagabond, produced over 30 years after her first feature, marks the beginning of Varda's career-long experimentation blending documentary style storytelling with a fictional narrative.

Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) is the titular vagabond girl, backpacking around the southern coast of France with no real destination or purpose. She draws water from people's wells, sells pints of blood for easy cash and scams meals from flirtatious men in cafes. Unlike the romantic figures in Kerouac novels, Mona has no idealogical reason for dropping out of society nor is she particularly interested in meeting the people who inhabit the new towns she blows through. She's perfectly content to sleep outside, read books and stare at the barren landscape of France's wine country in the off-season.

In the opening scene, we see that Mona has died from exposure after tripping, being knocked unconscious and remaining unfound overnight. Her story is unraveled through documentary-style interviews with the people she encountered in her final travels all of whom she left an indelible mark upon. And even though we see Mona leading a life of constantly searching for distraction through drugs, television, sleeping and American rock'n'roll her death allows for those who once knew her to reassess their own life choices.

Her existence now in the past tense allows for Mona to be remembered as a blank canvas for each of them to project their own needs, fantasies and bygone ideals on. A suburban mom longs for the freedom of youth, Mona's former lovers regrets ditching her for a construction job and a young woman re-evaluates her relationship with a petty thug.

Bonnaire, here at the tender age of 17, does a fine job of bringing a visceral intensity to her scenes and never seeming like a wisp of a memory. And Varda, for all her understanding of what the people who met Mona saw in her, presents Mona's life with acute gritty detail. It's also worth mentioning Bonnaire would go on to have a notable career not only as an actress but as documentary film-maker as well with her 2007 debut Her Name is Sabine.

The extras on this Criterion DVD include: a 40 minute documentary made in 2006 retracing Mona's journey though present day France, a conversation with actress Marthe Jarnias, a 9 minute radio interview with the writer Nathalie Sarraute whose work inspired the film, and a conversation between Varda and the film's composer Joanna Bruzdowicz.

See also: Smithereens, Wanda, The Dead Girl, Man Who Fell to Earth.

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Posted by cphillips at July 29, 2008 5:05 PM
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