Travel Films Week: "It Seems to Me That She Came From the Sea": A Review of Agnes Varda’s ‘Vagabond’

Agnès Varda directs Vagabond
This is a guest review by Rachael Johnson.
Vagabond is one of Agnès Varda’s finest films. First released in 1985, its title in French is Sans Toit Ni Loi–Without Roof or Law or Homeless and Lawless. It is the story of Mona, a young homeless woman roaming the landscape of a French wine-growing region in deepest winter. Lined with a feminist sensibility, Vagabond is both naturalistic and formally remarkable. Filmed in a realistic, pseudo-documentary style, it is structurally ambitious and bleakly poetic. Varda, interestingly, dedicates her film to Natalie Sarraute, one of the key writers of the Nouveau Roman (New Novel), the French literary movement that challenged post-war narrative conventions. Vagabond also features a compelling central performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. The actress, unsurprisingly, won a César (French Oscar) for her courageous turn as Mona. The film itself won the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival.
We begin at the end with the discovery of Mona’s corpse in a ditch. The young vagabond, it seems clear, froze to death. Through interviews with the people she met on the road as well as flashbacks, Vagabond explores the riddle of Mona. The young woman, it soon becomes apparent, is a complex, contradictory figure. Although spunky and independent, she can be curiously passive and sluggish. She does not care what others think of her but is defensive when challenged. She can also be as stubborn and sullen as a small child. Mona’s grit and sass are evident in the opening flashbacks when we see her flipping off a truck driver. There is, equally, a sensuality and earthiness to the young woman. We see her first–in long shot–emerging naked from the sea. The unseen interviewer (Varda herself) narrates in voice-over: “It seems to me that she came from the sea.” 
Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona Bergeron in Vagabond
The director’s feminist aesthetics are apparent in the framing of these early flashbacks. As Mona emerges from the sea, the viewer sees that she is being watched by two young men. Varda’s shot of the naked Mona is succeeded by a shot of postcards of naked women for sale in a bar frequented by the same young men. Disturbingly, they talk of missed opportunities. Varda depicts the sexual objectification and exploitation of Mona in a quite unobtrusive, subtle fashion. Many of the male characters reveal their misogyny themselves in interviews. A garage owner who exploits Mona has the audacity to say female drifters are “always after men.”
Many of the women Mona meets seem to understand and appreciate her more. A few even envy her mobility and freedom. A teenager longingly observes, “She was free; she goes where she likes.” Another much older woman admires her character: “She knows what she wants.” Amusingly, she tells her husband that she would have been better off if she had kicked him out at Mona’s age. The charged, poignant comments suggest deep female dissatisfaction with the domestic space.
Mona can be a subversive, liberating force. There is a wonderful scene where she gets drunk on brandy with a wealthy, old lady. The old woman revels in Mona’s anarchic spirit and the mischief of the moment. She knows her nephew wants her money and home and Mona helps her cut through the bullshit of bourgeois propriety and hypocrisy. Amusingly, the young vagabond has been squatting in an abandoned wing of the woman’s château with a young man she has picked up. Mona is also–at first at least–a romantic figure to the old woman’s nurse. A dreamy woman disappointed in love, she is fascinated by Mona’s relationship with the young man. The lovers eat from cans in candlelight, drink wine, smoke pot and listen to music. We see them–in a fine tracking shot–wander the grounds of the property wrapped in blankets. Mona does not, however, play the conventional romantic role for long. An autonomous, capricious spirit, she abandons young male lovers and companions when she feels the need or inclination. 
Mona drinks with a wealthy older woman
The young vagabond is a complicated, ambiguous character. She is prepared to play the dependent, happy to take, and willing to steal. She hooks up with a sweet Tunisian vine-cutter who provides shelter and promises to provide. When he is forced to choose his job and co-workers over her, she is bitterly wounded. She is offered a role and place to stay by a goat farmer but chooses to do very little. She expresses interest in growing potatoes but does not take up the man’s offer of help. She even steals from his wife. The goat farmer, a university graduate, is repelled by Mona’s aimlessness and lack of work ethic. Calling Mona “a dreamer,” he tells her of friends who have been destroyed and taken by life on the road. Mona, it is true, has no plan or ideology. She is not on a journey of spiritual or intellectual enlightenment. She does not want to remake her world. Mona, for her part, defiantly asks why a highly-educated man would herd goats for a living. The suggestion is that the farmer is himself somewhat of a dreamer and even guilty of middle-class self-indulgence. It is never fully clear what drove Mona to choose the road, but we learn that she hated her secretarial job and “jumped-up bosses.” She no longer wants to play the game. When a female agronomist she meets asks Mona why she dropped out, she answers: “Champagne on the road’s better.” Does she believe herself? The factor of class is alluded to but not underscored in Vagabond. Mona quietly observes, “There are so many big houses, so many rooms.” But we know little of her background and education.
The agronomist is intrigued and troubled by the young woman’s way of life. She offers Mona food, champagne, and temporary shelter in her car. The middle-aged woman plays a sisterly-maternal part and expresses deep concern about the dangers that may befall Mona when she finally parts ways with her. They are realised. Mona’s journey takes a tragic turn when she is raped in the woods. Varda, notably, pulls her camera away from the horror. Mona’s life gradually begins to unravel. Although she gains a new set of (delinquent) companions, she becomes increasingly unmoored and scarred by her state. We see her vomiting at a bus station, bombed out of her mind, and we see her, finally, break down and cry. The cold will soon take her. 
Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond
Vagabond is an unsentimental study of the road and Mona is not drawn as particularly sweet or predictably heroic. The film does not address gender politics in direct, didactic fashion. Varda’s feminist sensibility and aesthetics are, however, evident throughout. The veteran director never sexually objectifies her female protagonist, and her portrait of Mona is complex, humane, and provocative. The young woman is, in many ways, a truly transgressive figure. Her vagabond state represents an absolute rejection of the comforts, confines, and conventions of domesticity. Although young and attractive, Mona refuses cultural norms of feminine beauty. Mona’s filthiness is, pointedly, the subject of incessant comment throughout Vagabond. With these repeated references, Varda alludes to the deep-rooted misogynist cultural belief that an unclean woman is nothing less than a monstrous aberration. A male student of the agronomist declares, “She’s revolting, a wreck. Makes me sick…She scares me because she revolts me.”
Mona intrigues, unsettles, and repels the people she meets. Vulnerable, variable, tough, apathetic, hedonistic, wayward, and free, she cannot be pinned down and defined. If Vagabond sounds like too grim a journey, it is not. It is an absorbing, at once harsh and beautiful tale about an enigmatic girl who wandered in winter.

Rachael Johnson has contributed articles on film to CINEACTION,, and