Radical Empathy: Our Review of ‘Vagabond’

Posted in Movies, Retrospective, Theatrical by - March 30, 2018
Radical Empathy: Our Review of ‘Vagabond’

Citizens of a small town in northern France break the fourth wall to talk about a woman who has died. I like to think that Agnes Varda brings her documentarian sensibilities in Vagabond. This tells Mona Bergeron’s (Sandrine Bonnaire) story. Varda could have prolonged the presence of one of the cops who found her body. Or make the voice behind the camera stronger. Instead her camera is closer to these characters, making the sense of loss more direct. She connects Mona’s story to the characters she might have only had a fleeting association with. And all of them are uniquely French.

This communal portrait is both a strength and a flaw since it shows Varda’s tendencies to go into the weeds. We see Mona befriending and working with some North African farmers before leaving them. There’s also a specific subplot where Mona meets plant scientists Madame Landier (Macha Maril) and Jean-Pierre (Stephan Freiss). The movie gets too into what they do. And that is to drive around and cure French trees from invading American species. I see this as a metaphor for Mona, a fellow stray in that place. However, there’s another scene where Landier gets electric shock that’s the film’s sore thumb.

Nonetheless, we should appreciate Vagabond for the way it plays with structure. She is able to let us invest in a character like Mona even as she finalizes the latter’s fate. There are many films that do this that have come out before this one, and more after. However, this kind of structure is still a gamble that  pays of in her case.  We can also find why sympathy for someone like Mona is such an uphill climb. That reason is in the title. Varda stays with her because other institutions might not care for someone like her.

Varda compromises with her audience about their perceptions about French womanhood and gives us this new perspective that people ignore. Mona is the kind of free spirit who hitches rides and bathes in the ocean in the dead of winter. But she eventually opens up to the other characters. She tells them about why she chose this life instead of her past one. Of course, Bonnaire, an actress who has played other problem children, is perfect for such a role. There’s are scenes where she’s far from the camera but she uses her physicality to add to a haunting portrait.


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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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