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Nathan Douglas

Vagabond

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Links to threads on The Beaches of Agnes, The Gleaners and I, Cleo From 5 To 7, and Varda discussion in The Great Films.

I really like M. Leary's comment from the Beaches thread:

Someday I need to write something lengthy about how criminally underseen Vagabond is. It is one of the films that crop up in my mind when I think about films that have either most affected me, or seem to have the most to say about who and what people really are. It is easy to get the impression from the later Varda that she is a bit airy and carefree. But after watching Beaches, one gets a sense that Vagabond taps into the real depths of Varda's thought, and contains a few of its darker corners.

Darker indeed. I definitely expected something a little more whimsical, a series of episodes where, Into The Wild style, she brings some joy and meaning into every life she encounters. We know she's headed towards a tragic end, but at least we can admire her spirit and her ideals.

Only, as it turns out, we can't. We don't know why she's doing this. Her erratic behaviour doesn't offer any clues. She drives everyone away, sometimes because of her own faults, sometimes because of theirs. There is no way to understand. We can only try to love and sympathize with her. If anything, Vagabond offers an opportunity for each viewer to practice loving someone unlovable on human terms. As much as I didn't really like her, I couldn't stop caring about her.

Sandrine Bonnaire's performance is entrancing. She has one of the screen's great faces. I don't mean to exaggerate, but, I feel that the work she does here begins to approach the level of Falconetti, just in the way she expresses a world of mystery and pain with one look. It's absolutely haunting.

There's a motif of dolly shots tracking with Mona for a bit before leaving her behind and ending on a close-up of tree branches or other foliage. Any ideas as to what that's about?

Edited by N.W. Douglas

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That Falconetti connection is brilliant. I am about to write about ten pages, but everything I feel about this film is pretty much summed up in that connection you just made. Thanks!

Every time I see this film, I feel more compelled by the idea that Mona can be thought of as a figure of a kind of feminism that actually works. Varda casts this vision of the spirit of a woman imprisoned in a world that operates according to a code that is completely alien to her own interior life. I wonder if Varda has created Mona as an image of a restlessness or discomfort that she has felt as a woman and an artist. Everything that a woman feels in a world that is predominately controlled by a predisposition to the power men wield is linked to this feeling of being a Vagabond. We tend to think of the feminist plight as a way to restore a power balance, when it is actually a plea to evacuate women from a culturally imposed feeling of homelessness. Chauvinism equates female with domestic, but this is the great sham of gender imbalance. Male chauvinism actually existentially uproots women, it disconnects them from feelings of security and fulfillment.

I can't think of a more convincing image in cinema of alienation, of what it feels like to be completely marginalized. It is a terrifying feeling, and if watched correctly, Vagabond is a terrifying film. I always leave it with a profound sense of fear. (One that for me is engaged by that text in 1 John: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear...)

"There's a motif of dolly shots tracking with Mona for a bit before leaving her behind and ending on a close-up of tree branches or other foliage. Any ideas as to what that's about?"

As far as those dolly shots are concerned, I think the film is really marked by Varda's frequent focus on nature and natural cycles as something that humans have become disconnected with through modernism. Mona is ultimately a figure that by virtue of her dislocation from society has returned to this pre-modern mode of relating to nature. But rather than this becoming an idyllic mode of being, as we find in all those American woodland metaphysicians like Emerson or Thoreau, it is a state of being marked by the enduring sadness that marks all natural cycles. Mona's cycle is symbolic of what we will all ultimately encounter.

And at the risk of pushing this too far, I wonder if this film becomes almost confessional for Varda. In The Gleaners there is a profound sense of joy that accompanies her journey through this possibility that we can live differently, that we can live according to an agricultural impulse marked by an almost Taoist simplicity. But in Vagabond, Mona is completely lost. She is totally isolated. Even nature is no consolation to her, and ultimately simply becomes that thing to which her body returns. These tracking shots that end in foliage are almost an Ecclesiastes statement of despair.

I recently came out of the closet in a Herzog thread by expressing my recent dissatisfaction with Herzog's simplistic understanding of nature and eschatology. He has always been an icon for me in terms of understanding how civilization and nature relate. But I think he ultimately doesn't actually connect the dots. Herzog gets the anger in nature, and he gets the despair humans feel when confronted with nature's inherent power. In Herzog's thinking, God dies in nature - in a Nietzschean way. Humans achieve enlightenment, they fully embrace the ecstatic nature of truth (to use his own terms), when they submit to the idea that Timothy Treadwell was an idiot. We come to understand what we are as humans when we encounter natural cycles and occurrences as our ultimate ground of being. We need to submit to this. Chaos reigns.

But I don't buy this. And I think Varda offers a better perspective on ecology in Vagabond. Varda is less definitive about what nature means. For Herzog nature is the meta-narrative that determines the course of our lives whether we know it or not. Many of us live in despair because we aren't able to admit this. But for Varda, while nature is a scary, life-defining place, it is a scary place in Otto's sense of mysterium tremendum - tremendum being a word that contains the feelings of both "scary" and "awesome." I don't think Herzog is capable of expressing nature as a place in which we encounter a feeling of love and security, because he has doomed himself logically to nihilism. In Varda, we get these great images of nature as the primary context of human despair, but also a womb, a mother, a place in which seeds erupt and bloom after dying. Mona is lost, but she is embraced in the end of this film by a form of mercy that Varda can only express in her visual attention to the earth itself.

I think this is what I ultimately don't like about Herzog, there is no mercy in his cinema. In distinction, Vagabond is marked by a very vague, but profound sense of mercy and kindness. Mona is lost to everyone but Varda's film, which has protected her.

And for the sake of discussion, here is a cut and paste from some comments I made about Vagabond at a different forum.

So what is the deal with the documentary interview shots in Vagabond? The last one in particular is harrowing, no talking, just that guy staring woefully into the camera for a monet before it cuts back to Mona's last scene. There are several levels of commentary about Mona in the film: the voiceover, characters talking about Mona to each other, and Varda's own naturalist interpretation of Mona (becoming increasingly less human, clothes soiled and falling apart, then stained brown like the fields, it ends with her literally returning to the earth - I can't help but think of Mona as a continual life cycle, dead in the beginning, coming to life, and then slowly returning to the ground to start over again).

But there are also these documentary-like interview shots scattered throughout that I suppose help to keep us aware of the narrative time, as Mona's corpse is found at the beginning of the film. Regardless of the fact that I already know she dies, I always get completely caught up in her plight and lose track of how the film is structured. But these shots also blur lines between documentary and film in a curious way.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I can't think of a more convincing image in cinema of alienation, of what it feels like to be completely marginalized. It is a terrifying feeling, and if watched correctly, Vagabond is a terrifying film. I always leave it with a profound sense of fear. (One that for me is engaged by that text in 1 John: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear...)

Yes. Instead of being knocked out cold and that's it, she has one last moment of struggle. Her lonely life is giving way to, presumably, a lonely eternity, but she's still going to try and go on her own mysterious terms. I can't think of much that's more terrifying than dying alone like that. That last wordless "interview" shot of the Tunisian - the one person who came closest to offering her perfect love - adds to the devastation.

As far as those dolly shots are concerned, I think the film is really marked by Varda's frequent focus on nature and natural cycles as something that humans have become disconnected with through modernism. Mona is ultimately a figure that by virtue of her dislocation from society has returned to this pre-modern mode of relating to nature. But rather than this becoming an idyllic mode of being, as we find in all those American woodland metaphysicians like Emerson or Thoreau, it is a state of being marked by the enduring sadness that marks all natural cycles. Mona's cycle is symbolic of what we will all ultimately encounter.

It's interesting how her final encounter with civilization leaves her stained in grape juice - baptized, almost. Even though it's humans "attacking" her, their costumes make them more like demented scarecrows sent by nature to reclaim her, or put the mark on her before her return to the ground.

And at the risk of pushing this too far, I wonder if this film becomes almost confessional for Varda. In The Gleaners there is a profound sense of joy that accompanies her journey through this possibility that we can live differently, that we can live according to an agricultural impulse marked by an almost Taoist simplicity. But in Vagabond, Mona is completely lost. She is totally isolated. Even nature is no consolation to her, and ultimately simply becomes that thing to which her body returns. These tracking shots that end in foliage are almost an Ecclesiastes statement of despair.

Love the Ecclesiastes observation. That really seems to fit the pacing of the shots (and the semi-tragic classical music Varda lays on top).

Now I'm always going to wonder what it's like to see Vagabond before Gleaners, in that Gleaners is the unexpectedly sunnier follow-up to Vagabond, and evidence of some sort of reconciliation by Varda with the decaying world she portrays so depressingly in Vagabond.

I think this is what I ultimately don't like about Herzog, there is no mercy in his cinema. In distinction, Vagabond is marked by a very vague, but profound sense of mercy and kindness. Mona is lost to everyone but Varda's film, which has protected her.

Interesting that you bring up Herzog, because the one film I kept thinking of while watching Vagabond, was Stroszek. Partly because they have a similar approach to presenting bleak, wintery rural landscapes, but also for the isolation of their characters. They're all prey in some form, but at least Varda maintains Mona's dignity to the very end. I'm not sure the crazy pick-up truck/whooping call/dancing chicken stuff does the same for Bruno.

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Interesting that you bring up Herzog, because the one film I kept thinking of while watching Vagabond, was Stroszek. Partly because they have a similar approach to presenting bleak, wintery rural landscapes, but also for the isolation of their characters. They're all prey in some form, but at least Varda maintains Mona's dignity to the very end. I'm not sure the crazy pick-up truck/whooping call/dancing chicken stuff does the same for Bruno.

I had forgotten about your comparison here, but it is very good. I hope others take the chance to watch this as well.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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On 7/16/2010 at 6:53 AM, M. Leary said:

"There's a motif of dolly shots tracking with Mona for a bit before leaving her behind and ending on a close-up of tree branches or other foliage. Any ideas as to what that's about?"

...

As far as those dolly shots are concerned, I think the film is really marked by Varda's frequent focus on nature and natural cycles as something that humans have become disconnected with through modernism. Mona is ultimately a figure that by virtue of her dislocation from society has returned to this pre-modern mode of relating to nature. But rather than this becoming an idyllic mode of being, as we find in all those American woodland metaphysicians like Emerson or Thoreau, it is a state of being marked by the enduring sadness that marks all natural cycles. Mona's cycle is symbolic of what we will all ultimately encounter.

 

... She is totally isolated. Even nature is no consolation to her, and ultimately simply becomes that thing to which her body returns. These tracking shots that end in foliage are almost an Ecclesiastes statement of despair.

 

I thought this tree/foliage motif became a bit heavy-handed — particularly in the character of the professor who is only academically interested in researching the disease in the plane trees, but not interested in committing herself to finding a cure. She is happy to let Mona ride around in her car and live off of her handouts. She even says Mona has "taken root" in her car. But she's not committed to her. She doesn't love her. She's fascinated by her as an observer (much as Varda seems to be, by the way, with the dread-locked street youth in Gleaners, so maybe this is a self-critique).

Also, the disease that is killing the plane trees is loudly identified as coming from America, which underlines the film's other indications that people are valuing Mona according to her productivity, her ability to get work done or earn them money, either as a potato farmer or as a prostitute.

By the way, I always love a good opportunity to join a conversation that hasn't moved in... eight years!

This has been on my must-see list for a long time, particularly since filmmaker Paul Harrill raved about it for a long time over dinner one night in Grand Rapids. If I recall correctly, it's his favorite Varda, and a pivotal film for him in becoming a filmmaker.  


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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There's an interesting chapter in a book on post-secular cinema, Immanent Frames (edited by John Caruana and Mark Cauchi), which juxtaposes Bresson's Mouchette, Varda's Vagabond, and the Dardennes' Rosetta, exploring the tragic depiction of young women in relation with one another. Some of the author's interpretations are a stretch, but there's something thematically linking these Single Word-Titled Films About Young Women Fighting To Survive Being Exploited In An Unjust Economic System. (You could include Loden's Wanda here too.)

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