Thursday, August 23, 2007

#74: Vagabond

Vagabond, 1985, written and directed by Agnès Varda.

In Cléo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda made frequent use of tracking shots to follow Cléo along Parisian streets, and she does a lot of the same kind of camerawork in Vagabond. But while the narcissistic Cléo is nearly always in the center of the frame, Vagabond's protagonist, a homeless young woman named Mona Bergeron, can barely stay in the picture. Again and again, she either walks into the frame of an already-in-motion tracking shot, or falls behind, or walks out of frame as the camera keeps moving. It's as though she is on the periphery of her own movie. So it's strange that the film's cinematic predecessor is none other than Citizen Kane. Say what you will about Kane, he's never framed as an outsider:

Vagabond's link to Citizen Kane isn't immediately apparent. If you watched only the first two minutes of the film, you'd think it was an ancestor of CSI. Varda opens with the discovery of a frozen corpse in a field:

The melancholy violin music and long, slow zoom over a winter field lets us know we're not in a police procedural, however. After briefly showing us the police investigating the body, Varda explains via a voiceover that after talking to people who met Mona towards the end, she is going to tell us "a tale of the last weeks of her last winter." Like Citizen Kane, this is a story that pieces together other peoples' impressions in an attempt to give a coherent picture of someone's life (or at least the end of it). But if you remember Cléo from 5 to 7 (or Citizen Kane, for that matter) you'll remember how easily people project their own desires on those they meet. So we can't expect reliable narrators; throughout the film, we'll be given head-on interviews with people who met Mona, telling us what they thought of her. More often than not, their versions will obviously reflect their own fears and desires, not anything we actually see of Mona herself. And even Varda as narrator obviously romanticizes Mona: she ends her narration by telling us that "it seems to me she came from the sea." This is followed by a shot of Mona walking ashore like Botticelli's Venus:

From this idyllic opening, we trace Mona's decline to the point we first meet her, dead in a ditch. Most films about outcasts subscribe to something like the Great Man theory of history. Think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or even Nights of Cabiria. These movies are about outsized personalities, unique individuals who chafe against the world around them and follow their own paths, whether this is Randle Patrick McMurphy's doomed rebellion or Cabiria's unjustifiable optimism. Even Cléo from 5 to 7 works this way (though Cléo is hardly an outcast). Vagabond is a little different: Mona is one of the most passive protagonists you'll ever see, an empty space at the film's center that the other characters project themselves onto. There's an establishing shot in the film that expresses this nicely:

Varda spends next to no time asking questions about how or why Mona ended up homeless (the primary concern of most films about people on the skids). We learn that she went to vocational school, knows a little English, and once trained as a typist, but these details take up less than thirty seconds of screen time. When we see her alone, the filmmakers are almost always focusing on the gritty logistical details of life on the road. And I do mean gritty; Mona is filthy, and this is one of the few films you'll see where other characters consistently complain about how terrible the protagonist smells:

This isn't a glamourous portrait of life as a vagabond. For the most part, Mona (memorably played by Sandrine Bonnaire) seems pretty miserable, whether she's trying to eat a baguette that has frozen solid or flipping off a truck driver who propositioned her.

Throughout the film, Varda gives us more information about Mona than the other characters have. As a result, we are able to evaluate their judgments about her in ways they are not. Most are wildly inaccurate, but pride of place goes to a maid named Yolande, who meets Mona twice during her descent:

Yolande first sees Mona when she is crashing out in an abandoned mansion with another vagabond:

Given the circumstances in which Yolande sees Mona, her impression is understandable (if the psychology behind it is heartbreaking). She tells the camera that she wishes Paulo, her loutish boyfriend, "would dream with me like the lovers in the château, in each other's arms." From our privileged position in the audience we get to see that Mona is actually just hanging out with the guy in question until his drugs run out, and when he's attacked by burglars, she does nothing to help him. But just as we're patting ourselves on the back, Varda makes it clear we don't know Mona as well as we thought. Mona meets an aging hippie and his family, who are eking out a living by raising goats:

It's not much of a life, but it's a way of surviving while checking out of the world of offices Mona speaks so contemptuously of. When Mona casually says that she'd like to have a little plot of land to grow food on, the hippie gives her exactly what she's asked for, plus a trailer of her own to live in. By way of thanking him, Mona sits in the trailer all day smoking cigarettes until the exasperated family finally evicts her. "You live in filth like me, you just work harder," she tells the man on her way out the door. She's right, but this isn't the kind of noble rebellion movies have coached us to expect in this kind of situation. Instead, Mona is willfully stubborn and self-destructive. As the hippie puts it, "That's not wandering, that's withering."

In the end, withering is what Vagabond shows best. Mona's tenuous grip on what little she has begins to loosen about halfway through the film, when she discovers that a painting she's got in her backpack has a hole punched through it:

From this point on, Mona, at least, seems to know where her story is headed. You can hear her fear in the way she yells about the painting (which she immediately throws into the fire). What's shocking is how quickly her situation deteriorates towards the film's end. I think one of the film's greatest strengths is the way Varda captures how quickly the luck of someone in as tenuous a position as Mona's can run out. It takes about five minutes of screentime for Mona to go from being in control of her own situation to nodding out in a train station with a fine specimen of Eurotrash who is trying convince her to appear in porn:

The really brilliant thing about Vagabond is the way Varda has several other characters fall apart simultaneously. Consider Lydie, the only character Mona ever seemed to have much fun with:

Mona and Lydie share a bottle of cognac and really hit it off (and Lydie is hilarious). But just about the time Mona's really getting into drugs, Lydie is getting trucked off to a nursing home by her greedy nephew and his wife, the closest thing Vagabond has to villains:

The two also get Yolande fired and sent to another city, without her boyfriend. It's a structural cheat, but it's surprisingly effective. The general impression the last twenty minutes of the movie gives you is of everything collapsing on itself shockingly fast. These last scenes, more than anything else, give Vagabond its emotional power. At the film's end, I was left wondering how secure my own grip on my life was. Any film about a homeless person asks the audience this question, but usually the message is that we shouldn't give up on those on the outskirts of society. I can think of no other film that suggests so relentlessly that our best efforts keep us, at best, a few bad breaks from being found dead in a ditch or left to rot in an old age home, mourned by no one. Vagabond's message isn't "There but for the grace of God," it's something simpler: "There."


  • It would take another essay to talk about the differences in what Mona meant to the different characters in the film, but it breaks down into two basic camps. Men tend to describe her dismissively, and in a disappointed fashion. Women assume she has whatever qualities they are afraid they are missing themselves: freedom, love, friendship. The only people who don't offer any assesment of her after the fact are the ones who seem to have actually gotten to know her. We never hear from Lydie after she is taken to the nursing home, but we do get an interview with Yahiaoui Assouna, a man who taught her to tend vinyards, and seemed to be the only character who got her to think of any kind of a future ("I'm learning my trade," she says when he points out her blisters after her first day at work.) Significantly, he's the only person who doesn't say anything about her in his interview, just looks silently at the camera before clutching a scarf she left behind to his face. His eyes are hard to meet:

  • The film never lets us get close enough to Mona to learn why she's so damaged. But it's painful to see her occasionally reach out for affection, always from people who won't reject her. While working at the goat farm, she tries to caress the cheek of the farmers' daughter when no one is near:

    And earlier, she tries to connect with someone even less likely to make her suffer rejection:

  • Yolande and Paulo's room has the most pop culture references per square inch (pcr/in2) of any set in film history.

    In one room, that's a David Bowie poster, a Prince poster, an unidentified picture of another singer I can't identify, and a Rolling Stones t-shirt. It's their own virtual version of Live Aid.

  • The best snarky review of the film comes from The 16mm Shrine. It's short and to the point:
    A homeless French woman drinks a great deal of wine and dies in a field. Exactly as exciting as it sounds. ... Cue rapid montage of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENING.
    The full review is here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tireless Self-Promotion Break

I have a short essay in the September/October issue of GOOD Magazine, available at finer newstands everywhere. But why not subscribe? $20 gets you a year subscription, and 100% of your subscription fee goes to the charitable organization of your choice (the magazine is supported by ad revenue).

If you're the kind of person who can't wait for a paper copy, you can read the article online here. But it looks better laid out on the page...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

#73: Cléo from 5 to 7

Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962, written and directed by Agnès Varda.

Depending on how anal-retentive your English teachers were, you may have been given a handout at some point with a list titled TYPES OF CONFLICT. The one I got looked like this:

  • Man Versus Himself
  • Man Versus Man
  • Man Versus Nature
  • Man Versus Society

And so on. According to my seventh-grade Xerox, all conflicts in literature fit into one of these categories. Man Versus Himself is the list's sole example of internal conflict, and literature is full of it. But think quickly: what's the last film you saw where the only conflict was internal? My guess is you can't think of one. There are plenty of films where characters have internal conflicts, like the self-loathing mother and daughter in Autumn Sonata. But the action of these films, even the most introspective, tends to center around the way those conflicts play out when two or more characters are battling each other. There are films where a single character has a change in perspective that propels the story forward, but usually filmmakers go to great lengths to make these changes appear onscreen externally and visually. Think of Kevin Spacey's new car in American Beauty, or the entire character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Internal conflict isn't something that lends itself well to the medium of film. So when I tell you that the most important conflict in Cléo from 5 to 7 is entirely internal, you know we're talking about a pretty unique film. When I add that the internal conflict is not the kind of Freudian self-loathing and projection that movies thrive on, but rather Sartrean bad faith, we're into even more rarified cinematic territory. And when you find out that it's filmed in 24-style realtime, as though it were a thriller, well, there's nothing in that particular Venn diagram but Cléo from 5 to 7. So what was Agnès Varda thinking?

For one thing, she was thinking that there's more than one kind of ticking clock. The film opens with the sound of a literal clock ticking, as the film's main character draws the worst possible Tarot card:

The fortune teller gives her the usual bullshit about how the card represents change and transformation, despite being called DEATH and having a skeleton on it. Confirming my skepticism, the second Cléo has left, the fortune teller tells another man, "The cards spelled death, and I saw cancer. She is doomed." So if Varda chose to break the film down into minute-by-minute clockwatching, in which each chapter covers a very specific stretch of time, it's only because this is precisely where Cléo finds herself on her personal journey toward that Tarot card.

Cléo, played by Corinne Marchand, is a minor pop star, who has recorded a few singles but is far from established. She's cinema's closest thing to Sartre's bad faith waiter:

His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the consumer... All his behavior seems to us a game. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café.

Cléo plays at a lot of things over the course of the film, but like anyone acting in bad faith, she's not very good at it. Watch the way she puts her hand on her chest in mock-humility when she admits to a taxi driver that she's the singer of the music that's come over the radio:

That's her best pop-star imitation, but she's just a little too over the top. For Sartre, bad faith is a way of denying agency and responsibility (being for-itself attempting to become being in-itself, to use his terms), and certainly this is part of what's going on with Cléo. But as you've noticed from the stills, she's a beautiful woman, which means that she has a somewhat more difficult struggle for authenticity than most, because people line up to offer beautiful women inauthentic roles to inhabit. Witness Cléo's encounter with her lover, one of the least subtle portrayals of mutual deception on film. Cléo plays her part to the hilt, wearing a frilly nightgown and greeting her lover on a rococo catastrophe of a bed.

Soaring romantic music plays during their conversation, despite the fact that the conversation is about the fact that neither of them has any time for other. Asked why Cléo should continue to see him, her maid offers a list that ends lamely with, "He knows everyone in Paris. You go well together. He's tall." Even Cléo's apartment is overtly theatrical:

Notice the separate sets with large empty spaces between; it's the way you would set up a stage to cross-cut between locations without scene-breaks. Although it's clear that everyone in Cléo's life offers her roles to play, it's equally obvious that she is quite happily complicit in her own deception. And as Cléo notes while shopping for hats, "Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me." Varda underscores this point with a stunning tracking shot where Cléo nearly disappears in the store window's reflections. With this many surfaces, what hope does she have of finding depth?

Well, mortality cuts through surfaces pretty quickly, it turns out. In fact, this happens quite literally later in the film—we see a shattered shop window where someone smashed their head in a fatal car accident.

And Cléo has more on her mind than a Tarot card. She's waiting to hear the results of a medical test to determine whether or not she has cancer. At first, her main concern seems to be whether or not disease will make it harder for her to continue playing at life; on the way out of the fortune teller's, she thinks to herself, "Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I'm beautiful, I'm alive." And virtually everyone in the first half of the movie encourages her in this sort of shallow narcissism. The worst offender is Bob, the pianist who is responsible for her career. He's played by Michel Legrand, the film's composer, and all his charm can't hide his contempt for Cléo as soon as she behaves as anything other than a vehicle for his own success:

The worst of it is, he's right about her limitations, and Cléo knows it. "Leave the songs, I'll choose later," she says, when throwing him out of her apartment. "But you can't read music," he reminds her. By the time she storms out, he's called her a "self-pitying, spoiled child" (pretty close to the truth, at that point), but as Cléo leaves, Varda adds a bit of set dressing to suggest he isn't much better:

If Cléo from 5 to 7 were made today, I'd expect there to be a huge moment of revelation, a point where Cléo (probably in tears), decides that she's been living the wrong kind of life and vows to change. The closest thing in the film is the scene where she throws a tantrum at her composer, but Varda shows this as just another instance of bad faith; at the end of her speech Cléo literally walks behind a curtain and her maid remarks, "What a performance!" So for a woman like Cléo, who is surrounded by people who enable her bad faith, is authenticity possible? Varda's answer would seem to be a tentative yes. But it's not easy.

So how does Cléo get there? Not a lot happens in the rest of the film: Cléo goes to a café, puts one of her own songs on the jukebox, and wanders around seeing how people react. The result is a great big nothing; people continue their own conversations. She hangs out with a friend who deals with the male gaze by confronting it head on:

Talking about modeling, her friend tells her, "My body makes me happy, not proud"; the polar opposite of Cléo's vanity. Cléo does have a moment of insight, thinking, "I thought everyone looked at me. I only look at myself. It wears me out." But it's internal, not a statement she makes to anyone. And that, Varda suggests, is how real change happens: anything Cléo articulates to others will be (or at least be seen as) a performance, just the inhabiting of another role. So in a sense, the very lack of big, dramatic moments of change in the film shows us that Cléo is genuinely approaching authenticity. It's no mistake that, shortly after this, Cléo sings to herself while wandering through the park. It's her most choreographed scene, and she's not performing for anyone:

It's a little strange, because she's being very overtly theatrical here. But what matters is that no one is there; she's singing to amuse herself, not for an audience (except for us, but I don't want to go into that particular hall of mirrors right now). It's this change in her motives that makes the final scenes of the film possible, in which Cléo meets a soldier about to leave for Algiers, and makes a genuine human connection:

It's the happiest we see her. Some people criticize the film because of its ending: the relatively articulate feminist critique of Cléo's bad faith ends with her meeting a man. But I think this misreads the film's structure. The real climax of the film is Cléo's realization that she's wasting her energy inhabiting roles. The scenes with the soldier are more like an extended denouement: the film wouldn't be appreciably different if she met a woman in the end. The final shot is not a kiss between the two; it doesn't seem to be a particularly sexual moment at all:

I've read comparisons here to the ending of The Graduate, but I think that misses the tone. What I saw in the last frames of Cléo from 5 to 7 was not awkwardness, but connection: Cléo presenting herself to someone for the first time without artifice or caprice. Avoiding bad faith is a constant struggle for anyone (and a particularly difficult one for women, since men tend to define their own agency by denying it to women). Cléo manages it for a moment, at around 6:30 PM CET on June 21, 1961. It's enough.


  • Michel Legrand went on to win three Academy Awards for his work as a composer. That's three more than Agnès Varda and Corinne Marchand combined. This gives a little more bite to Cléo's complaint that he undervalues her talent.

  • Cléo from 5 to 7 is 90 minutes long, and it really is in realtime. The first time I saw it, I imagined that the two hours had been compressed. But in fact, the film ends at 6:30, and the time in the chapter headings really does match the time elapsed in the film. Eric Henderson offers an interesting but pessimistic interpretation for the missing half-hour here:
    ...the film comes to an abrupt and unadorned halt following the revelation that Cléo's condition is not life threatening, suggesting that she lives life from crisis to crisis... Cléo is a non-entity when she's not making a scene. When the film's impetus is removed, Cléo simply ceases to be, cinematically speaking.
  • The film's camerawork is top notch. It's overwhelmingly handheld, and the outdoor shots in Paris feel like Varda just let her actors wander around the streets. Which I imagine is exactly what happened; I find it difficult to believe something like this is a staged shot:

    Varda began her career as a photojournalist, and this shows in the realistic way she captures Parisian streets. Unfortunately, the verité feel is somewhat undercut by the obviously non-production sound and heavy-handed foley work. The images themselves are spectacular, however. I particularly liked a long tracking shot that follows Cléo and Dorothée's car for a full city block from what would appear to be a balcony:

  • I can be precise about the time because of the chapter headings, the date because of a radio broadcast that mentions it, and the year because the same radio announcer talks about the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna that happened earlier that month. For what it's worth, it was a Wednesday. So put June 21, 1961 up there with June 16, 1904.

  • You've probably noticed that the opening shots of the film are in color; apparently they were not always presented that way, since the Criterion Collection says that these were "restored." I'm not sure why Varda used color for this sequence. Shock Corridor also had a color sequence in an otherwise black and white film, but Fuller used this in a dream sequence, where it had an obvious purpose.

  • Watch for a who's-who of New Wave during the film-within-a-film. Varda got Jean-Luc Goddard, Anna Karina, and Eddie Constantine to appear in the pastiche of silent comedies that Cléo watches. Here's Goddard doing his best Harold Lloyd:

    I know, I know, a review of a feminist movie ending with a man. But if it was good enough for Varda, it's good enough for me.