Just how Agnes Varda has kept "Vagabond" from being a monumental downer is interesting, but she has. It is haunting. It is melancholy--as the sight of a young life, wasted and finally spent before our eyes has to be. But ultimately, beyond its central tragedy, it is an exhilarating film, the sort you leave burning to talk about with friends.
Varda's subject is the exploration, after the fact of her death, of the last months of a young woman nomad on the road in the south of France in the very late fall.
By rigorousness and unsentimentality, Varda pokes and provokes us into considering the limits and obligations of personal freedom; what do we owe to those around us, where do we draw the line at becoming "involved." And, how many facets are there to the people we encounter, even glancingly. (To Varda, a character will have as many sides as one of Picasso's fractured perspectives; she is burning that we understand all sides at the same time.)
Of the numbers of street people everywhere in Los Angeles, the most mysterious and disturbing are young bums, young winos, young men and, in increasing numbers, young women. How? Why? You might guess that the Vietnam War played some part in the lives of the young amputee-homeless you see now. In Northern California, where I used to live, the occasional young shambling casualties in Mill Valley's streets and parks were mostly the terrible refuse of the heyday of mind-expanding drugs.
Varda will not give us any such easy context for her central character. Mona Bergeron remains defiantly opaque. Why we will never learn. The fiercely handsome Sandrine Bonnaire, 18 when she made the film, plays Mona with the curt savagery of someone who has become deeply protective of herself (her innermost self; not her body, with which she is uncommonly openhanded). It is Varda's deliberate way of keeping Mona universal. She will not be tagged easily--as a drug casualty, an abused child, a political refugee--and so all possibilities of her life are open for our identification.
Because two-thirds of "Vagabond's" cast are nonprofessionals and the structure of the film is a mosaic of impressions, it's tempting to think of it as loosely strung together. In fact, "Vagabond" is constructed as perfectly as a picture puzzle without a single random character or incident. One of the real fascinations of the film is to sort out their delicate interrelations, and to discover that almost every character has a positive and a negative meaning in Mona's life. (A few, actually, have bad and then worse sides.)
Mona's unyielding persona allows the people she meets to project their feelings onto her. More than two dozen people's lives touch hers, old, young; rooted in this provincial countryside or as migratory as she. And all of them see her a different way, most of them as romanticized as any fairy tale.
A teen-age farm girl (slightly younger than Mona) who gives her water, sees her as free to do what she chooses. Yolande, the dippy young maid who looks after a prosperous old woman (84-year-old Marthe Jarnias, one of the film's great character bits), spies Mona asleep in the arms of another scruffy young roadie in an abandoned chateau. To her, these two are lovers and soul mates. "I wish that Paulo would dream with me, like the lovers in the chateau," she moons.
Having shown us one part of a character, Varda moves the light slightly and illuminates another facet, perhaps not as attractive but resoundingly human. Mona and the bearded young man of the chateau, who wears a chain and a padlock around his neck, are companions for exactly as long as his stash holds out. (He will even reoccur as the deus ex machina of the disaster that sends Mona spinning out onto the road one last time, unequipped for the bitter weather.) Paulo is a low-life and a leech, and in his clutches Yolande is set up for more trouble than she deserves, since she is a good-hearted, if dim soul. The old woman, with whom Mona has an uproariously funny scene, may have fading eyesight, but her perceptions of her over-solicitous nephew and his poisonous young wife are crystal-clear.