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An Exposé on Human Nature in “Vagabond” (1985) – Film Review

I’m always a little hesitant about watching French films. Why? They’re known for being eccentric, and very unafraid to talk about taboo topics (ahem, please regard 8 Femmes and Les Enfants Terribles.) While I’ve never been disappointed by a French film, I can certainly say that every time I’ve watched a French film, my life has changed.

So what is Vagabond about? At its core, it’s about a young runaway woman and her travels during her final winter. The movie follows her for 105 minutes, with brief interludes in an “interview” style told by those who met her that winter. It has a bit of a documentary feel to it, and at some points breaks the fourth wall, which plays heavily into the theme I will be talking about later.

In the first five minutes of the film, a farmer discovers a dead body lying in his field. An omniscient narrator then says that she is going to tell the story of this dead vagabond, Mona.

Right off the bat, this puts us at a distance with the character. We know she is going to die at the end of the film (literally, the film opens with her corpse), and that automatically serves to distance us from her character. This, in my opinion, is where we see the documentarian’s true purpose – to craft an exposé on human nature via people’s interaction with the vagabond.

Told in a very realistic, minimalist cinematography style, we essentially become Mona; everyone she interacts with, we interact with.

The filmmaker explores different people throughout – from an intelligent, middle class professor, to a blue-collar truck driver, a dirty, drugged Vagabond, to an affable, wealthy man. Through Mona’s interactions with these very caricaturized individuals, we are able to truly see the altruistic nature, or lack thereof, of human beings. The people we least expect to treat Mona with kindness defy our expectations, while those we believe will accept her instead reject her.

Moreover, the setting and movement of the film are truly works of art. Without all the flashbangs and Hollywood glamour, this film has a realism to it that surpasses many of the “historical documentary” films that I’ve seen today. The film really goes the whole nine yards; the actress who plays Mona looks unwashed and absolutely filthy, with dirt caked under her fingernails, and long hair tangled and greasy. The people that she comes across seem very real; they look like actual humans, rather than hyper-stylized make-up dolls saying rehearsed lines.

While the film is completely plot-less (in the classical Hollywood sense of the word), it still provides an incredibly interesting portal into the exploration of human philanthropy, and really gets the viewer to think about how they would react in each of these situations, faced as both a weary traveler seeking help, or someone who has the opportunity to give help.

There is also an underlying theme throughout the whole film that forces watchers to confront their own beliefs on what “freedom” means to them. To some, like the Vagabond, it means being under her own jurisdiction, while for others, it means finding someone that they fearlessly and wholeheartedly are in love with. For even others, freedom means having a lot of money to do with whatever they please.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film, and would recommend it for any movie watcher looking for an alternative movie experience, different than the ones you usually see on the big screen.