The English title of Agnès Varda's 1985 masterpiece is accurate enough: The film tells the story of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young homeless woman who wanders the French countryside during the course of one winter, scrounging for food and shelter before she freezes to death in a ditch. But I prefer the French title, "Without Roof or Rule," because it better encapsulates what Varda successfully does: provide a sort of essay about the meaning of freedom, not just a film about aimless roving. Mona's free-spiritedness has a seductive quality - she seems to generate envy in just about everybody who crosses her path. But Varda powerfully shows how there's an inherent brutality to living without rules, and she does it without ever devolving into melodrama or didacticism.
Mona isn't a particularly likeable heroine. Wearing a perpetual smirk and constantly angling for a sandwich or a handout, Bonnaire's portrayal is downright feral, as if she's gotten to the core of basic human need. And she sadly devolves into the occasional act of self-degradation like sleeping with men for shelter. But she has a snotty, punkish character that makes her compelling to watch - and appealing to the people who cross her path. The brilliance of Vagabond is that while it's essentially a film about poverty, Mona collapses class distinctions. She works in a vineyard with other poor laborers, but she also lives large in a chateau and gets taken in by a well-to-do professor. In brief faux interviews interspersed in the film, people who've met her reminisce about how much more interesting their lives became because Mona was briefly part of it.
Continue reading: Vagabond Review