The Space Within, Analyzing Agnes Varda’s VAGABOND with Special Dedication to Critic and Novelist John Berger
Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1986) could easily be a silent film, not just because of its beautiful images of earthly textures, inspired by paintings of Jean- Francois Millet or Vincent van Gogh, whom Varda adores, but, more significantly because of the film’s exquisite cinematographic language.
The story begins with a wide shot of Mona coming out of the sea and walking into vast open fields. This first shot could be seen as a blank page of life, with limitless experiences and, opportunities still lying ahead. Moments later (presented in a wide shot,) the scene is transformed: large rocks, a wall along the road, to the completely closed environment of a car cabin. Mona’s unpleasant experience with a truck driver who gives her a ride is shown in scenes with lots of cuts suggesting that human connection is being interrupted. Mona becomes more reserved and only increases her vigilance when she sees what civilization can offer her. While the film sustains the alteration of wide and medium shots, the pacing slows, till Mona is no longer eager to continue her hitchhiking journey. The background goes flat even when Mona encounters and stays in an abandoned house with a stranger her age. Here, even though we follow the two having seemingly good time, focused on basic, essential activities, such as sleeping, eating and smoking – with pleasure, there’s still a certain angling in the shots, which makes one feel unsettled watching them.
One of most riveting structural moments of the film is a playful tracking shot – mostly when Mona is on the road. It starts smooth and keeps up with her to some extent, then at one moment, the effect over takes her, leaving Mona behind while the camera pauses on an object, such as a plow machine, that then serves as an introduction to another chapter of Mona’s story.
On her journey, Mona meets a professor who treats infected trees. Thus a hope—of cure, or resolution appears on Mona’s horizon. When she and the professor are both shown in the car, there is a friendly atmosphere, despite the very limited space presented in two shots. The two women clearly enjoy each other’s company. Mona experiences a joyful moment with someone who finally tries to understand her. Nevertheless, she gradually starts to notice things outside. Great regret swells up in her, since she no longer actively participates in her journey – is no longer physically present in nature, but rather sees it only from the car, which to her, is bitter-sweet.
One of my personal favorite scenes happens at the end of the film. While wandering around, Mona gets randomly hired by a Moroccan vineyard laborer. She works in nature, is active and around polite and kind people, who without any judgment, accept her for who she is. The wide shot of her working in the field echoes the earlier wide shot of Mona coming out of the sea in the opening scene, except this time there’s no water. This chapter is closest to a sense of reconciliation, but, due to the work being short, Mona has to leave her fulfilling stop sooner than she expects.
After that, her condition worsens. But before the end, we are still treated to one of the most amazing comedic scenes in cinema history. It takes place when Mona pretends to be an elderly woman’s housekeeper. During their genuine, open chat, as they have shots of brandy, the peals of laughter are mesmerizing and poignantly real. The two women become companions, if only for a brief moment.
By then Mona is no longer seen outside, no longer on the road but rather surrounded by walls. In one of the last scenes at train station, she starts to hang out with random strangers and just keeps on perpetuating her destructive behavior. Her alcohol abuse is so extreme , she can no longer walk on her own. She can’t deal with the people she’s been with for a while. After the fire she leaves and gets back on the road. But this time she is almost invisible, shown in a wide shot, while she walks through the field at sunset, which looks like flames burning the ground before winter. Mona falls into a ditch and dies. Reminding us that nothing is permanent, she reconnects with the earth, with nature, for good.
After Mona’s death, all that is left are the stories of others. Mona comes back to life through the storytelling of those she encountered in her life as a vagabond. A portrait of her emerges—not only as a body in a ditch, but instead as a human being who struggled with existence, in order to live freely. The words of strangers, from the truck driver and the Moroccan laborer to the professor and the elderly woman, give us a sense of what Mona was like, even if we are still left wondering who she truly was.