Friday, September 14, 2012

Sans toit ni loi

If you have seen Sandrine Bonnaire only in Secret Défense or Au coeur du mensonge, then you haven’t seen anything yet: the much younger Sandrine gives a lesson in virtuous acting in Agnès Varda’s powerful observation of that meaningless rootlessness that is often confused with freedom, Sans toit ni loi (literally: ‘without a roof or rule’; int’l title: Vagabond), often a direct result of sans foi ni loi (without faith or law). The film is not at all about Bonnaire’s remarkable combination of vulnerability, lack of discipline and idleness masked as rebellion; rather, it is a sweeping canvas of French countryside and French life, including the immigrants, men and their objectified desires, and the banality of lives framed in this frame: lives ranging from that of some big-shot professor to that of an immigrant who prunes the vines and is too abject to even keep the girl he wants. The film is remarkably similar to Gogol’s novel Dead Souls, not just because of the variety of human characters thrown up in a chilling moral landscape, but also because that the main character here, Mona, is not very heart-warming yet does not excite apathy, just like the rascal Chichikov.

The film in its structure and rhythm is very much a Varda film: segments of film intercutting; characters talking to the spectators; humor and poignancy so frequently butting into each other, that there is hardly space to laugh or cry; and a female character being the central character. Mona Bergeron is indeed living the wandering life of a shepherd (bergère), but without a flock to take care of: and that makes all the difference. Without discipline or responsibility, freedom is a myth: as the shepherd predicts, it ultimately leads to self-destruction, not simply physically but also morally. However, it is not easy to turn away or back from the route one has taken, for discipline requires an elevation of spirit, not just of intelligence: and how many are willing to embark on that sacrifice? Too easy it is to scorn the world, to say I’m my own (wo)man, and pretend (even to oneself) liberty: too easy it is to give a wild, brilliant spurt here and there but not channel forth into a great river.

There are some excellent supporting performances all throughout the film, most notably by Yahiaoui Assouna and a young Yolande Moreau. Dialogues are a key to any French film, even if they are few in number, so if you understand French, it would surely make you appreciate the film much more. The lasting impression that the film leaves is that of the transitoriness of human life: the words that came at the beginning still resound in you, when the narrator wonders if those people who were in contact with a younger Mona still remembered her.

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