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Vagabond: a dystopia by Agnès Varda

Mona tries to escape capitalism, but the cage is much bigger than she thinks. Still from Vagabond, Agnès Varda (1985).

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival, Agnès Varda's Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) deserves a view in light of the current historical and social situation.

In the plot, French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, then 18, plays Mona, a wanderer found frozen in a vineyard in the French countryside.

Based on the accounts of people who come across her in the last days of her life, the film builds a portrait of the young woman, the social types, and the hostile environment in which she wanders.

The result is a portrait of France at that historical period, while at the same time posing a question on the anti-capitalist attitude of the main character.

At the beginning of the film, Mona looks like a free woman. Her belongings are a heavy backpack, a tent, and the clothes she wears.

She does what many young Europeans used to do in summer: camp across the continent and live a few months of small jobs, like helping with the crops on farms.

But when the film starts, it is winter already, and Mona continues her pilgrimage, refusing to return to a life considered normal, “a secretary,” as she says at one point in the film.

In her first scene, a young man who saw her on the beach makes a poetic comment: “it looked like she had come from the sea,” he says.

Alone, she lives on the help of strangers: people give her water, some offer her a ride, others offer her sandwiches.

However, unlike the idyllic setting that tourist pamphlets often sell as the image of the French countryside, Mona camps amid desolate, semi-urban landscapes, where there are lots of concrete, dirt, and few resources like gas stations and even cemeteries.

The dystopian scenario accurately describes the capitalist environment from which she is trying to escape.

The lack of comfort, bathing, cold, and hunger is constant. At a given moment, exhaustion takes its toll. She loses her few belongings and, in the end, there is nothing left, even her purposes.

In our opinion, there are two ways to understand the film: the first is to follow Mona and try to understand her motivations.

The second is much more interesting: it is to understand how, in the film form, the information we have about Mona is from the people who meet her. She is a mixture of points of view of those who come across her.

The result is fragmented, incomplete, partial and often loaded with prejudice from those immersed in the same confused reality.

This second option requires a distance effort from those watching the film. A distant position allows an understanding of Mona but also of those types who oppose her figure. Most importantly, it forces us to question our adherence to what is being told and shown about her.

The contradictions and conflicts are from interactions between the protagonist and the other characters, who also lead desolate and often aimless lives as much as she.

This approach is possible because Vagabond is a film in which Agnès Varda uses the Brechtian concept of estrangement as the main feature of its form. It is possible to say that this is an epic exercise, in keeping with the legacy left by the German playwright.

With that in mind, we can understand the complexity in the film, which goes far beyond a possible judgment about the self-destructive behavior of the protagonist.

Mona shows us the impossibility of dispossessed freedom while the concept of private property remains intact.

At that historical moment, neoliberalism and globalization were consolidating as the new stages of capitalism. Currently, it has violent cracks as a result of this process.

Mona's lonely utopia is doomed to failure because capitalism surrounds her and does not allow dissent.

In her walk through the capitalist valley, she doesn't find the borders and can not understand that one can not escape alone. Individual resistance is not enough.

There is also a message for leftist movements that encourage resistance without organization and a concrete direction.


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