This essay is one of several contributed by filmmakers and actors as part of Variety’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time package.
When I discovered “Vagabond,” I was the same age as Sandrine Bonnaire in the film, about 20 years old. The character of Mona claims only one value: freedom. Whatever the cost, despite hunger, thirst (lack of cigarettes too). Even if it means giving up her life. She categorically refuses the codes that society wants to impose on her.
In writing the film, Agnès Varda, as often, mixes genres. We alternate between Mona and a police investigation looking for traces of the deceased young vagrant, an unfortunate woman whose remains no one claims. It’s an unpredictable chronicle because of the character’s habits. And there’s a documentary flavor, because the director likes to build her fictional stories by making reality a raw material, malleable clay, inviting it into the frame alongside her actors, a number of whom are nonprofessionals.
Agnès Varda did not go to traditional film school. She declared one day, “I am a director,” and then applied herself to creating her own language, to tracing her own path, upending rules, blending styles, with infectious joy. Mona is not likable; she does not seek pity. For some, her story wouldn’t even be a subject. She’s an outcast, traveling without a specific goal. However, the narrator’s voice emphasizes from the start: “People who had met her remembered her. She had impressed them.” When I watched “Vagabond” in my 20s, I looked at her — upright, obstinate, sincere — and I was impressed. I was struck by the feeling that Varda looked terribly like Mona in her approach and actions, free at whatever cost. And I silently promised myself that if I ever made a film (the idea was barely germinating), I wanted Sandrine Bonnaire to act in it.
Audrey Diwan is the director of “Happening,” which features Sandrine Bonnaire.