The New Wave director, Agnes Varda, is often described as a feminist film-maker with a certainty that the French have always managed to command and refused to apologise for (I love them for it). Vagabond is arguably one of her most overtly feminist character studies. It is the story of a young woman, Mona, who rejects society in order to live a life of solitude and freedom on the road. She wanders through French wine country during winter, determined to survive on her own terms until exhaustion, hunger and freezing temperatures make any further journey impossible.
We begin by discovering the body of a young girl, frozen in a ditch on the edge of a vineyard. Varda herself provides narration, explaining that she does not know who this mysterious girl is or where she has come from. But as the story progresses, Varda asks us to join her as inquisitor. In a staged documentary style, we meet the people who last saw Mona and they answer questions as to her movements and their involvement with her. Some are honest, others leave out details to cover their own backs. Slowly we begin to glean a version of events leading up to Monas demise.
It becomes clear that this is a woman who, by choice, has completely shunned every societal construct out there. She has no job so she steals, she takes cash in hand jobs, she sells favours, she exploits the kindness of others. She has no house so she squats, she camps or she finds jobs that provide lodgings. She never stays in one place for long. She doesn’t wash or change her clothes. She is seen by some to be enviably free, by others to be vulnerable and by some as sinister. By existing outside society she completely polarises opinions.
The most enjoyable thing about this film is the complete autonomy Mona has. Just like Jack Kerouac in On The Road (without the whiny telegrams to his mum asking for another cash injection) or Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (without the breakdown), Mona chooses this life. Varda never casts her as victim. It could even be argued that her death is on her own terms.
It is only her rape that stands out as a choice that someone else has made for her, but even here Varda does not linger or give Mona time for reflection. She is not blaming her for putting herself in a vulnerable situation. In another scene, Mona provides some sort of unspecified sexual favour to the owner of a garage she been washing cars for. It’s left ambiguous as to whether this is payment for letting her pitch her tent in his yard. But by viewing the film as a whole, you begin to see how Varda might be critiquing a society that prescribes roles for women and punishes them with violence when they do not adhere but never has to turn back on itself and examine why those roles exist or why men might see a woman as a target. Mona may have rejected society but she cannot completely escape the strictures of patriarchy.
I’ve read a lot of other reviews of this film, some very interesting, some vitriolic. There are some who question whether this can be deemed a feminist film when Mona seems so reliant on men for survival. I think it’s incredibly sad that someone could watch this film and come away with such a one-dimensional interpretation. Mona comes across and often stays with a lot of men, but she also comes across and has meaningful encounters with just as many women who help her survive. Those who help her have no hold over her, she retains no attachment to anyone, and in this she treats everyone equally. On the whole, it is the women in this film who find Mona fascinating, as though they envy her freedom and self-determination. Most of the men eye her with distrust or attempt to use her for their own pleasure. There are exceptions to this but I think Varda is making a pretty interesting point about the position of women within patriarchal society.
Do not expect to like Mona. At times she is completely obnoxious. She can be willful, rude, lazy, unappreciative and fickle. However, she is also courageous, fiercely independent and observant. In one of my favourite scenes Mona is the only person willing to listen to an old lady, largely ignored and imprisoned in her own house, whose nephew is waiting with impatience for her to die and to come into his inheritance. They sit drinking brandy and laughing together as equals.
Apparently, Varda was inspired to write this story after encountering a female drifter. It is plain to see how she felt about that woman when we watch Mona, she doesn’t judge or seem overly worried about her, rather she is fascinated by her. Through this film I also feel she’s exploring themes of collective responsibility. We all have a responsibility to look after those around us but first and foremost we have a responsibility to look after ourselves.
Mona is, without doubt, one of the most autonomous female characters I have ever witnessed on film. And to top it off, it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. So in my book, that makes it a pretty badass feminist film.