The Agnes Varda film I originally wanted to recommend is her 2008 documentary, “The Beaches of Agnes.” It’s my favorite Varda film, because it’s an exploration of Varda’s own personal life and her filmography which I see as being intertwined. The influence of Varda’s personal life bled into her films in an explicit manner, and in “The Beaches of Agnes” that process of influence comes full circle with Varda in the present examining her films of the past. By re-examining her past films, Varda reconstructs the story of her life. Ultimately, “The Beaches of Agnes” is a film about Varda’s artistic journey spanning over 30 years and so it’s this attempt at understanding her own artistry that make this my favorite Varda film.
Yet, while I think “The Beaches of Agnes” can be enjoyed without having watched any of her previous work, I also think there arises a richer and more nuanced understanding of that film and of Varda as a whole, when having been a seasoned veteran of her earlier films. I mainly write this column for the aspiring film aficionados; the people who want to get into film but don’t know where to start. Under the presumption that you’ve only ever seen one Varda film or perhaps none at all then then, I’ll instead be recommending Varda’s 1985 “Vagabond,” coincidentally the first Varda film I ever watched.
Preliminary research on Varda will let you know that she’s a feminist filmmaker and this is reflected in her works which focus on different types of female experiences. I’ve briefly discussed this in my review of Todd Hayne’s “Carol,” when I brought up comparisons to Varda’s “Happiness.” “Vagabond” is a great film to start with, because I think it perfectly encapsulates Varda’s examination of the female struggle built up by her earlier works.
The story is about Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire), a female vagabond who is found dead, frozen in a ditch. Through a voice-over narration, an unnamed person (Voiced by Varda herself) tells us that she has gone through the process of finding the people who recently interacted with Mona in order to gain an understanding of who Mona was. Laced with these interviews are segments of a straightforward narrative which shows us Mona’s side of these interactions, up until the moment of her death.
I see “Vagabond” as being about the inescapable roles women must take in society, and the punishing result of rejecting those roles, i.e., death. Consequently, through the use of interviews and thereby exploration of not only who Mona was but also the other female characters of the film, “Vagabond” is about the dangers of constructing a “female” image. The audiences own understanding of Mona is warped by the very film itself; the use of different perspectives gives us different understandings of who Mona was.
For example, at one point Mona moves onto a farm with a family led by an ex-philosopher. Like Mona, the philosopher sought to get away from society, but the difference between the two is, whereas the philosopher escaped society but understands that he still needs to at the very least be on its fringe to survive, Mona wants nothing to do with society at all and this is reflected in her actions on the farm. She is given a plot of land to work but is eventually kicked off for never doing anything. From Mona’s perspective, she may seem to be a radical feminist taken to an extreme. From the perspective of the philosopher who is interviewed, she is lazy and stupid.
Similarly, another scene in the film showcases the ever changing perception of Mona. It begins with a close-up shot of Mona’s arm with a needle sticking out, leading us to believe that she’s taking a drug of some kind; after all, she is a vagabond. Yet, the camera zooms-out and its revealed that she was donating blood. Here, we initially perceive Mona as the quintessential degenerate—an image which already began forming once we see her in tattered clothing, signaling her poverty—and a slew of ensuing connotations—but once it is revealed that Mona was donating a blood—an act of charity—what changes isn’t necessarily our understanding of Mona but our preconceived perception of Mona. The difference between the two being that the former insinuates that we understood Mona in the first place whereas the latter is about our idea of Mona rather than who she is.
And that’s the danger of constructing a “female” image that I discussed earlier. In our attempt to understand Mona, we already perform missteps because of how Mona is presented through the highly subjective form of cinema. She is simultaneously an idiot and a perverter of societal standards. It seems to me that Varda is suggesting that perhaps we can never understand who Mona really was, because Mona only exists through our own preconceived notions of her femininity, whether constructed by Vagabond’s own imagery or the interviewees.