In 1985's Vagabond, a girl lies dead in a ditch, and her corpse provides the cue for an investigation into the failures of empathy that led to her passing. The girl is Mona, played by Sandrine Bonnaire in that defiantly unprepossessing manner that had already caught the eye of Maurice Pialat, all dirt under the fingernails and leaves in the hair, a total absence of vanity or shame. Mona is homeless, and mostly contextless: who she is (or was) turns out to be far less significant in Agnès Varda's film than what she represented to the people she crossed paths with on the French agricultural lowlands. For the men, she's most commonly approached as an easy lay, a piece of ass to be picked up and discarded - so grubby even the local prostitutes complain about her stink. For the region's other women, however, themselves often trapped in unhappy living conditions, Mona appears as an avatar of liberty and free will. We might see her as a defining creation of the feminist or post-feminist cinema: independent, headstrong, sexually carefree, bored by or unsuited to routine and domesticity, and yet ultimately uncertain which way to turn - not to mention doomed.
As a viewing experience, Vagabond suffers from the centralisation of a character who, by her very nature, is perpetually hard to pin down (at various points, the girl could be known as Mona, Simone or even Sandrine, such is the level of naturalism the film is aiming for), and whom one suspects even Varda wouldn't condescend to know entirely. Yet there's something heroically dogged and unflinching in the way the camera pursues this young woman along her slow, inevitable downcurve - keeping an eye on her, as almost nobody else around cared to - and something adventurous and tirelessly inquisitive about its broader picture, venturing as it does into what looks a very lowly part of the French countryside, the kind of backwaters where huddled locals gather in gloomy, rundown bars to hear talk of yet another farmworker's suicide. Varda pushes Bonnaire into tentative, revealing encounters with pro performers and non-pros alike, and finally gleans from this cruel and unforgiving earth a handful of supremely evocative images. As the filmmaker sets a bourgeois housewife's manicured nails against the young girl's mud-splattered hands, we see one world failing to connect with the other, and the tragedy inherent in that disconnect.
Vagabond is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.