Sans toit ni loi
France / UK, 1985
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 22 November 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Early in Vagabond we hear testimony from a family of shepherds whose encounter with the main character, the drifter Mona, ended in what they deem failure. Providing the stranger with shelter and also land to plow and plant for self-employment and sustenance, Mona has rejected them for a life “without roof nor rule” as the film’s original French title, Sans toit ni loi, translates. The family’s father, a graduate of philosophy, angrily denounces Mona for having no direction, no commitment or self worth. Throughout Vagabond, we will hear from a number of individuals who will offer commentary on Mona, describing her from “truly free” being to a “nice piece of ass.” These “interviews” with fictional witnesses recounting their connection to Mona are perhaps the most vital pieces of this complex exploration of a woman and her inaccessible persona. Agnes Varda’s hybrid composition of fiction structured as documentary questions not only Mona but also the audience’s perception and participation with the film.
Vagabond opens with Mona’s dead body discovered in a ditch. Knowing Mona’s eventual fate, we begin to examine her life, confined to her encounters while traveling through the rural farm areas of Nimes. This being a fictional narrative, we are able to join Mona in life through flashbacks prompted by those who met her in her travels—the family of shepherds, an academic who regretted letting her go, lovers, truckers, fellow vagrants, and those who glimpsed her briefly on the road. The episodes become repetitive as Mona connects only to reject with defensive and unclear reason. Although she is occasionally thrown or chased out, it is usually Mona’s decision to leave. In her memorable encounter with the shepherd family — perhaps because it seems like a generous opportunity, a chance to change — the father recounts his own nomadic days over supper, pointedly remarking that his friends who stayed on the road had met an early death or at the very least a life of poverty and addiction. Mona listens with an apparent intensity, takes up shelter in the trailer they freely provide for her, and then does nothing, merely sitting in the trailer smoking up and sleeping through the day. When confronted, she angrily denounces the family, saying that if she had wanted authority she would still be a secretary and takes to the road once more.
Varda’s visual style in Vagabond is reminiscent of her New Wave cohort Jean Luc Godard, particularly in Week End, with its relentless tracking shots and seemingly endless road trip through a purgatorial French countryside. In Vagabond slow tracking shots move slowly across a horizontal plane composed of dreary farmland at once wide and endless, as Mona moves in what may only be an increasing circle, one that closes in rapidly toward the end of the film as connections between the various strangers in her life are made. Varda is careful to frame Mona within this landscape; Varda’s love of art and painting is evident in her decision to frame Mona not as the focus of the shot but only a small part of a larger image, a creature of the land she treads endlessly upon. The natural world becomes as much of a character as Mona, surrounding her and offering no relief in her wandering. Bresson’s Mouchette might be a fair comparison, with its repeated motif of the simultaneous innocence and brutality of nature as mirrored in the life of young Mouchette, a suffering adolescent Although this would imply Mona is simply a cog in a cruel, natural world there are small moments of humanity, such as Mona befriending an elderly woman or connecting romantically with a Turkish migrant farmer. These are the best clues we have into her emotional psyche, as these encounters expose vulnerability and warmth, rather than the cold and self serving attitude that mask Mona’s thoughts and emotions for the majority of the film.
Mona’s rejection of social norms has no tangible root, a mystery Varda is completely uninterested in unraveling. The mention of the secretarial position is the extent of her employment history and a personal background is far more obscured with a mere mention of her father’s name. This lack of information puts the audience in a unique position of distance rather than a more typical audience—we are observers in a similar position as the people testifying to Mona’s life, not only the events occurring and leading up to her death, but her very existence. Mona remains a blank slate: people react to her and offer up their opinions, assumptions, and self-reflexive assertions while Mona’s own emotions and thoughts are held back from us. Rather than a cautionary tale or recounting of a woman’s tragic demise that offers psychological insight and answers, Vagabond is a grim study of a life—but was it wasted? Those who knew Mona certainly vocalize opinions that this dreamer, idler, and empty-headed girl was a lost cause. Varda strives for a different response, a kind of acceptance if not for Mona’s choices, than perhaps for unanswered questions and the marvel of human life, however irrelevant or irresponsible it may appear.