AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


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6/5/09

Agnes Varda's Vagabond


Vagabond
1985/2008
Director: Agnès Varda
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Yolande Moreau, Macha Méril

Review by Nancy Keefe Rhodes

From the start she has liked these tracking shots that seem to go rogue. Agnès Varda had no formal training in cinema when she made her first feature in 1954, but in the opening moments of La Point Courte she turns a seaside village’s sleepy summer ambiance to sudden visual exhilaration with one such shot. We are all settled on the figure of a man standing at a corner when another emerges casually from the background, walks up an alley and enters a house. Varda’s camera swerves to follow the second man, flying along outside in the street as he walks from room to room within, catching him briefly through successful windows before finally we’re allowed inside at the meal too.

In Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Varda tracks a glamorous singer awaiting a cancer diagnosis in real time through a series of encounters – sometimes following a little girl up the street and sometimes coming to rest on a bickering couple at the café table – as she circumnavigates the city of Paris (wonderfully re-created with a map and a motorcycle in the 2007 Criterion Collection DVD’s extras), much as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom circles the city of Dublin in Ulysses.

Before turning to film, Varda had worked as a photojournalist, a fact often remarked upon to explain her gorgeous framing. But surely these tracking shots are a further masterful adaptation of the demands of still, two-dimensional composition to the moving image’s additional realms of space and passing time. When Varda made Vagabond in 1985, she used a series of twelve linked tracking shots – each begins with an image that echoes how the previous one ended – combined with variations on the theme of Polish composer Joanna Bruzdowicz’s La Vita quartet, as a quiet scaffold for her story, the rapid disintegration of a young vagrant named Mona (17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire) who freezes to death in the vineyards of southern France during one of the coldest winters on record.

Emerging from the near-freezing sea after an impromptu bath in the film’s first flashback after the discovery of her body – and even here she is spied upon by two guys on scooters who idly consider whether raping her in worth their trouble – Mona encounters a number of people in her last weeks, losing the accoutrements of hippie wandering as she goes. Some offer assistance and care, some have other ideas bordering on depraved indifference and worse. Their impressions of her – much as in Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane – piece together a sort of portrait, which Varda inserts documentary-like, with some individuals facing the camera, after a narrator (Varda herself) explains early in the film that she sought out their remarks upon the discovery of Mona’s body in a ditch, much as the police search Mona’s pockets.

Vagabond will screen to great fanfare this Saturday in Santa Monica, California, part of American Cinematheque’s major retrospective of Varda’s half-century-plus career (June 24 – July 1). Now 81, Varda has a heavy post-screening talk-back schedule and will also introduce a sneak preview on the retrospective’s last day of her new film. The Beaches of Agnès, which won France’s Cesar award for best documentary, then opens theatrically in Los Angeles on July 3rd (and in New York City on the 1st at Film Forum).

A look-back at her life and work with the through-line of beaches that have been important to her personally and figured in some of her films, The Beaches of Agnès is replete with clips from Varda’s many earlier films. Those from Vagabond are especially telling by their very judicious brevity – a series of moments when Mona kicks a metal door, punches a building and vigorously gives a lecherous truck-driver the universal sign for “Up yours!” as she departs his cab when he throws her out in the middle of nowhere. Sandrine Bonnaire’s Mona – a bravura performance that won awards then and remains fresh and gripping – was neither sentimentalized nor softened, even in her best moments. But the clips from this film that Varda chose for Beaches suggest we should take another look at how deeply angry and alienated such a woman might actually be – whether a female drifter, apparently few in number in mid-80s France (though Varda did research their existence), or those for whom such a figure might stand even now – whether she has a thought-through philosophy to go with his destitution or not.

While containing some of Varda’s most masterful filmmaking innovations, Vagabond also has some of the heftiest performances she’s directed. Besides Bonnaire, there’s a very young Yolande Moreau as a gullible maid (the Belgian comedienne currently stars in the well-received drama Séraphine, just opened here in the US) and Macha Méril as the fastidiously manicured ecologist Mme. Landier, who befriends Mona during a field trip, recounts by phone from her own luxurious bathtub how much the girl stunk, and wakes in the night from tearful guilt at having left her alone in the woods.

Vagabond also displays Varda’s signature use of local non-actors in pivotal supporting roles, often essentially playing themselves. These include the rollicking elderly brandy-drinker Aunt Lydie (Marthe Jarnais), the soulful-eyed Tunisian farm worker Assoun (Assouna Yahiaoui), a drop-out scholar-turned-goat-herder and his wife (Sylvaine and Sabine Berger), a pair of father and son garage mechanics (Pierre and Richard Imbert), and Setina herself, the young drifter upon whom Mona was modeled.

It would be a good idea to get ready for Beaches, and Vagabond is not a bad place to start.


*******
This review also appeared in the June 25, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Vagabond is a 2008 Criterion DVD release, along with several other Varda titles. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing DVDs both new and enduring as well as theatrical releases. Reach Nancy at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

1 comment:

  1. I will find it, I've heard some impressive things about this movie... it has an interesting topic and its issues aren't bad enough, so I will do my best to see it as soon as possible.

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