Five reasons to watch Vagabond, Agnès Varda’s austerely beautiful masterwork

Among the finest films of the 1980s, Agnès Varda’s powerful story of a young female drifter moving beyond the bounds of society remains essential viewing. Here’s why.

• Buy tickets for Vagabond at BFI Southbank

Amy Simmons

Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond (1985)

Unapologetically transgressive, righteously bleak and infused with a uniquely feminist sensibility, Vagabond proved to be one of Agnès Varda’s most essential films, winning the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival and a best actress César for Sandrine Bonnaire.

Set against the frigid winter landscape of rural France, it follows Mona, a complex and contradictory drifter, who survives on handouts and ephemeral liaisons with strangers. We begin at the end, with the discovery of her corpse in a ditch. Then, through flashbacks and interviews with people who came into contact with her, Varda’s film attempts to reconstruct the final days of her life.

Here are five reasons Vagabond deserves your attention.

1. Its nonconformist protagonist

A walking affront to civil society, Mona intrigues, unnerves and disgusts the people she encounters. Her filthy, vagabond state embodies an absolute rejection of femininity and of the comforts, confines and conventions of domesticity. Vulnerable, tough, apathetic, hedonistic, disobedient and free, she cannot be pinned down or defined.

To Varda’s credit, the film doesn’t attempt to represent Mona as sympathetic – she’s insolent and devious when she needs to be, doing whatever it takes to get through the day with a minimum of effort. With seemingly no plans or sense of purpose, Mona abandons lovers and companions, connecting only to later reject with unclear reason.

Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond (1985)

2. Its feminist approach

Varda’s feminist aesthetics are evident from the opening flashback, where we first see Mona emerging naked from the ocean, being ogled by two young men. This scene is followed by a shot of postcards of nude women for sale in a bar frequented by the same men, who talk unabashedly about missed opportunities. While some characters, particularly women, admire Mona for her strength, she remains a potential sex object, rendered disposable to most of the men she encounters. As a mechanic (Pierre Imbert) bluntly puts it, having helped himself to a sordid tryst in Mona’s shabby tent: “Female drifters, all alike: just loafers and men-chasers.”

3. Its supporting characters

Throughout Vagabond, we hear testimony from a number of fictional witnesses, interviewed by the narrator (Varda herself). These range from migrant farmers and peasant families to shopkeepers, construction workers, truck drivers and fellow vagrants. As they recount their connection to Mona, she is described as everything from a “truly free” being to a “nice piece of ass”. Through Varda’s documentary-like approach, we get a largely unflattering picture of the interviewees as they expose their own fears and hypocrisies. As they reveal much about themselves, Mona’s true nature remains ungraspable, both to those who thought they knew her, and to the audience.

Sandrine Bonnaire and Agnès Varda in production on Vagabond (1985)

Sandrine Bonnaire and Agnès Varda in production on Vagabond (1985)

4. The cinematography

Using a moody and desaturated colour palette, Patrick Blossier’s painterly photography sets the enigmatic Mona against a stark French landscape of icy skies, wind-blown sand and frozen hayfields, reflecting back the cold, drab and pitiless world she inhabits. From the dim abandoned rooms where Mona takes cover to the brightly lit homes where she’s excluded, every shot, every frame of Vagabond is expressed in sparsely poetic images.

Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond (1985)

5. It remains searingly relevant

Structured around the hazards of a female drifter’s experience, and by extension the female experience more generally, Vagabond remains powerful and timely – and a clear influence on Kelly Reichardt’s own drifter story, Wendy and Lucy (2008). Far from brazen opportunism, the precariousness of Mona’s existence stems from her outsider status as a woman in a sexist society. As she attempts to remove herself from the social norms expected of her gender and class, Varda shows us how perilous and short-lived this zoneless space can be. As one of the film’s interviewees caustically observes: “By proving she’s useless, she helps a system she rejects.” 

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