Agnes Varda’s Vagabond in Riverside Park

Riverside Park  is a long strip of grass and trees sandwiched between the M32 and the River Frome, in Bristol.

During the day it’s busy with bicycles and foot traffic moving between Easton roundabout and Cabot Circus ( central Bristol’s shiny new-ish shopping centre) and  going back and forth between St. Pauls and Stapleton Road.  On a sunny day you might see men sitting on the benches enjoying a can of lager or sharing a spliff.

For a long time a homeless man lived here with his possessions and shelter materials kept in a shopping trolley. He’d stand by the path, topless, washing himself with water from the river, seemingly shy of the attention he attracted.

I used to cycle into work early mornings along the footpath next to the river when I worked in the city centre…  and would often pass the same two  prostitutes coming in the opposite direction.  From a distance they seemed to be party girls tottering home, but as you got closer you realised they were crack addicts with hollow cheeks and grey faces.

After dark the park isn’t somewhere you feel comfortable  hanging around in; its somewhere you pass through to get somewhere else.

When we were thinking of somewhere to screen Agnes Varda’s great 1985 film Vagabond, Riverside Park felt like a good place – easily accessible but out of the way.

In French the film is called Sans Toit, Sans Loi, which translates as Roofless, Lawless.  Its a disjointed narrative following the travels of a young woman, Mona, drifting homeless through winter-time southern France.  During the course of the film we learn virtually nothing about Mona , but we find out much more about the characters her life intersects with.

Mona is an almost entirely unsympathetic character – she’s rude, contemptuous, and  uses people, often cheating and stealing from  them even when they show her kindness.

Strangely we still identify with her.  Partly its the inexorable logic of cinema where we always identify with the protagonist, but its also the energy and spirit and stubborness she shows in the hard work of refusing to fit in with society.  About the only detail we discover of her biography is that she was briefly a secretary and hated it.  She’s a beautiful woman who smells bad.

While Agnes Varda (who also wrote the screenplay) keeps Mona a blank the other characters seem to want to tell us about themselves and reveal their lives to us.  We’re shown their jobs, their domestic lives, their relationships.

A middle aged woman admires Mona’s strength of character. A lorry driver says he won’t put up with female hitch hikers when they’re a pain in the arse.  A muslim immigrant worker shows her tenderness but gets rid of her when his fellow workers object to her presence.  A female academic gives her a lift and is beguiled by her freedom and nihilism, but wants to see her as a cause she can save. A brief boyfriend regrets losing her because she was a good fuck and he could have made money from her as a pimp.   An ambitious agronomist is both sexually fascinated and afraid of Mona, but repeatedly tells his controlling wife how he was disgusted by the drifter. A puritanical back-to-the-land hippy despises her purposelessness…

Mona seems untouched by these people…. I used to care…

Vagabond isn’t without its faults, the camera movements and editing often feel over-determined and wooden; and the mix of non-actors and professional actors sometimes only highlights the limitations of both acting styles.  The use of straight-to-camera testimonies, taken from documentary now feels stale after two decades of reality tv and mockumentary.  Worse is the clumsy portentousness of the soundtrack.

But ultimately the (intentional) stubborn awkwardness of Varda’s visual grammar in this film, and the bleak flatness and muted colours of the photograpy works in the film’s favour, mirroring the stubbornness and difficulty of the central character, and never allowing the audience to fall into comfortable passivity .

Even in the climactic scene where Mona, delirious with fever, wanders into the middle of a festival, Varda refuses to uses the crazy camera angles and riot of colours that many directors might have been tempted by.  Rather than delirious the scene is muted and discomforting, leaving us with the image of two men dressed as turnips sitting in a bath, splashing around in muddy water.  Mona leaves the village, stumbling into the damp fields, where she trips and falls undramatically into a ditch where she not so much as dies as simply gives up.  And there the film ends.

In the sixties Varda had been involved with the radical politics and counterculture of the era. (amongst other things making a documentary on the Black Panthers and being close friends with Jim Morrison).  On one level Mona’s vacancy and sour nihilism could be read as a metaphor for the blankness of the post-ideological generation that succeeded the defeated ’68ers.  But if Varda was thinking along these lines, its undercut by her humanism; as well as bleakness she shows moments of happiness and mischievous joy in Mona’s life, and the film as a whole gives us a picture of how different lives play out in rural communities and small towns. ( At the age of 70 Varda returned to this territory in a more optimistic film The Gleaners and I.  In that film the marginal people, the gleaners, offered a way forward rather than a dead end.)

Today in 2012 we’re still living in the post-ideological era that became entrenched in the eighties.  Or more precisely an era when a meta-ideology – Neo-Liberalism, – has embedded itself in the collective consciousness, with its drive towards the commodification of all human interactions.  Perhaps, stripped by time of any Sixties nostalgia the film might have aroused in 1985, the difficult questions Vagabond raises about what freedom might mean are even more relevant now .

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