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  Vagabond Wand'rin Star
Year: 1985
Director: Agnès Varda
Stars: Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril, Yolande Moreau, Stéphane Friess, Marthe Jarnais, Joël Fosse, Yahiaoui Assouna, Patrick Lepcynski, Laurence Cortadellas
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In rural France, one of the farm workers finds the body of a young woman in a ditch and the police are called. As far as they can ascertain, she was a drifter who died of exposure, though there are some details which remain mysterious, such as her name, where she came from, and why she was covered in wine dregs when she was found. We have the privilege of being able to go back in time to see who she was, and we travel to a few weeks ago as Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), the drifter, was making her way across the wintry landscape, doing what she could to get by, merely living day by day and hand to mouth...

Sandrine Bonnaire won some of her best reviews for her role in this austere drama, mainly thanks to her refusal to play for audience sympathy which ironically made us all the more interested in Mona and what makes her tick. It was a film from Agnès Varda who by this stage, from being one of the shining lights of the French New Wave with the distinction of her gender setting her apart for some, was now a seasoned and respected member of the French cinematic establishment, and it was efforts such as Vagabond (or Sans toit ni loi, as it was known originally) which sustained her career: she had guided the young Bonnaire to a César for her performance, not to be sneezed at.

In style, the film took a semi-documentary method to its story in that there were scenes where the people Mona had met along the way were either asked about her by other characters, or talked directly to the camera as if Varda was enquiring of them as one would in a news report. Interspersed with these were more dramatic sequences as Mona had various encounters with the locals, some good, some bad, but all ending with her moving on though whether she really wants to leave some of them behind, or their shelter at any rate, is up for debate. We actually find out very little about her beyond the here and now (or there and then, as the movie is one long flashback), but she does let slip a few biographical hints.

Some are more intrigued than others, so for the tree doctor (Macha Méril) who picks her up hitchhiking she wants to know more about her and if she can help, in spite of Mona's lack of social niceties, yet then again there are the goat herding couple who put up with her until they feel she is taking advantage of them and kick her out, and more worryingly the occasional glimpse of an assault against the girl. Yet all the way through she ploughs ahead with no purpose other than to find somewhere to sleep and food to eat: these are the two major elements in her existence, and Varda regularly returns to imagery of both of those, stressing Mona's needs are basic at heart.

Any yet, for all her great show of not needing anyone except herself, the drifter is far from self-sufficient: she truly needs the kindness of strangers to help her get by, it's not enough to simply get odd jobs here and there to buy food and a patch of ground to set up her tent, especially as the season is so cold. More than that, Mona could do with a friend as she is not as independent as she would like to think, and that's part of the reason that, prickly as she is, you feel for her and wonder if there wasn't anything that could have been done to save her life; knowing she will end up dead lends a tragic air of fatalism to the film. However, the fact that we are pretty much observing without possession of the full narrative cannot help but distance us from Mona, no matter how sorry we are for the way it all goes horribly wrong for her, and from some angles you could argue she only had herself to blame. Then again, its hard to say, and she remains an enigma to the last, lying, dying in that ditch. Music by Joanna Bruzdowicz.

[This is available on the Agnès Varda Blu-ray 8-disc box set along with six other features, a selection of shorts and a wealth of other interview material with the director, one of the greatest woman filmmakers of all time.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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