2016 Film Essays

Vague Visages on Agnès Varda’s 88th: ‘Vagabond’


People often fear or misrepresent what they don’t understand. As a result, effective communication often becomes a problem. Voices are raised, fingers are wagged and the concept of listening ceases to exist. For the female subject of Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, a collective narrative of her life emerges through the steadfast opinions of others. Yet, the director presents a disturbing fact to open the fictional documentary: Mona Bergeron is dead. Through a series of vignettes, Varda roams the French countryside to investigate the final weeks of a mysterious individual and how spontaneous moments can leave a lasting mark.

Mona is a vagabond because she does vagabond things. She smells horrible (according to a curious academic) but she’s still appealing enough to gain the attention of several men during her travels. So, why did this ragged vagabond hit the road? Well, Varda explains that she’s hoping to find some answers. Portrayed by Sandrine Bonnaire, Mona (Simone) wears the same filthy clothes and looks unkempt, but that says nothing about her background or where she came from; a rich college kid may look exactly the same way if he or she decided to travel for a while. Mona fits the role of a vagabond, but she could be anybody. In Varda’s own words, “she came from the sea.”


Although Mona’s life story can’t be fully presented through opinions, Varda does provide telling scenarios about the character’s motivations. At one point, Mona finds shelter from a gentle farmer and even receives a piece of land to develop, but she’d rather stay in her tent and read. To the farmer, the vagabond appears lazy and ungrateful. But perhaps Mona has little intention of staying, and maybe she’s not interested in a day to day routine. It might only be about the experience. That doesn’t mean she’s lost, it means that her values, at this moment in her life, don’t align with the expectations of others. She’ll help, but she’s not going to stay. In Vagabond, people come together and they drift away. And then they have something to say after the fact. Except Mona.


“We’ve all got to do our thing, don’t we?”

Mona’s experiences, as presented in Vagabond, are divided between younger people that she seems to understand and domesticated individuals that enjoy her presence yet look down upon her, most notably the aforementioned academic. Based solely on her appearance, Mona even upsets a prostitute. On the road, the vagabond sets her eyes upon specific men and enjoys intimate encounters, but she never gives them any legit reason to hope for a lasting future, at least through Varda’s lens. Mona’s personality emerges according to what her acquaintances expect. Some men want romance while others just want a helping hand. Some women seek a few laughs and others romanticize select moments of Mona’s life to grip with their own realities.


There’s a touch of Jim Morrison to Mona, and “The Changeling” by The Doors breathes life into an early scene. In fact, Agnès Varda was actually present at Morrison’s Parisian apartment on the night of his 1971 death, and just as a simple twist of fate ended the rock star’s earthly existence, the same thing ultimately happens to Mona in Vagabond. As a character, one may not like the way Mona flings snot from her nose or sleeps with various men, but what is she really doing? Varda doesn’t show Mona having sex, as it’s only implied through the words of others. She’s present but remains elusive. Mona may be uncertain about the future, but she appears to have a strong sense of self, even if she’s learning on the go.

Sadly, when Mona needed someone the most — anyone – she was too far gone, too far off the map.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the founder/editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.


Leave a Reply