Sunday, December 27, 2009

vagabond ("sans toit ni loi") movie review

"vagabond" ("sans toit ni loi"), a bleak and intense 1985 drama, is a seriously counterintuitive viewing choice for the holidays. i caught this one on ifc earlier this week, the second time i've watched this hypnotic character study that reconstructs the tragic road to a woman's senseless death. it's one of those films that, if you stumble across in progress, grabs hold of you and demands watching (like "drugstore cowboy" and "factotum"). it's barren landscape especially hit home with the early deep freeze that settled in these last couple of weeks.

the film unfolds in quasi-documentary style - following the startling open where the woman's frozen corpse is discovered in a ditch. no one really knows her, but the various people she interacted with are "interviewed" juxtaposed with the time she spent with them. what makes the process fascinating to watch (in an slowly unfolding car wreck sort of way), is the increasingly detached behavior mona (sandrine bonnaire) exhibits as she spirals toward her death.

mona is not clueless. we learn that she graduated from secretarial school and was gainfully employed in an office. but she hate it - and quit. we don't get any real background on her middle class family upbringing - but she's not without luck. at one point she meets a goat herder and his family. not only do they put her up (in a small trailer) but offer her land (to grow the potatoes that she said she'd like to do) to work. instead of work - she sits in the trailer all day, smoking cigarettes.

again and again, apparent life-lines are tossed her way - only to be ignored. begging for food and money are what she consistently falls back on (carrying a knapsack with her handful of possessions and a tent) as she constantly takes to the road. at one point, where she seems finally on the verge of settling down with a migrant tunisian vineyard worker - only to be kicked out when the other workers return from their trip and refuse to have a woman live with them in their already cramped quarters.

the terribly sad aspect of her story is the accompanying de-humanization of her downward spiral. at her very end she finally becomes aware of how far from civilization she has actually travelled. shivering in the frigid conditions, she collapses in the ditch and comes face to face with the harsh reality that she can't save herself - this is it! at an earlier point mona was picked up by a sympathetic professor who worried over her. gone is the self-confidence of that mona - replaced by the frightened and helpless mona.

in an exchange with the professor's student, mona asked "are you afraid of me?" he was afraid of her - and, metaphorically, the chaos and disorder she represents to his safe, traditional way of life. when charged by the professor to find her - and, miraculously he does at a train station - he refuses to help her. mona has devolved even into even coarser, behavior - and doesn't even recognize the student. he in turn is offended by her on multiple levels (no recognition, his professor's concern for her, and mona's contempt for civilized norms).

"vagabond" is a sad - but powerful - film. don't pass it up.

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