Having just watched Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) for the first time, I am reminded of films and literary works that question the limits of social morality, especially in that of Vagabond by Agnes Varda. I also fondly think of Viridiana by Bunuel. My attention is held by those that question the values at the core of human nature and relations. Leigh’s Johnny, played by the incredible David Thewlis is plagued by mystery and madness, seeking some kind of peace and redemption in a world all gone wrong. He holds moments of true insight and brilliance, but still wavers along the line of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, whatever they may be.
He is presented as a man without limits, without concern for whatever is considered ‘right’ social behaviour. He is both inspiring and shocking, intriguing and disgusting all at once. He is replusive but magnetic, a true spark in a sea of dirt. The setting of London is incredibly bleak and oppressive, we feel at the end that there is no hope for him, whether he wants to change or not.
Learning that most of Thewlis’s lines and monologues were infact partially improvised, i am even more curious of the words and worlds he creates. Amongst his agonising ranting at the audience, at the characters involved, at anyone and anything that will listen, he does provoke interest and concern into the real issues in life - god, religion, evolution and the greater powers, whatever they may be.
“If you take the whole of time and represent it by one year, we’re only in the first few moments of the first of January. There’s a long way to go. Only now we’re not going to spout extra limbs and wings and fins, because evolution itself is evolving. When it comes, the apocalypse itself will be part of the process of that leap of evolution… Mankind must cease to exist, at least in material form.”
A longtime fan of Vagabond, I am drawn to compare Johnny to Varda’s female anti-hero, Mona, played by Sandrine Bonnaire. She is ultimately portrayed as more tragic, as she is frozen, icy as death at the film’s opening. Mona’s life is shown in recounts by the strangers and fellow travelers she meets on hey way through the french countryside, rather than following her consistently along her travels.
Unlike Johnny, Mona admits that she did infact have a previous life as an office worker. Her journey into vagrancy is seen a choice she has made, but for Johhny it seems he has always been an outsider, on the fringe of society, possibly born into it. It is almost shocking that a french woman would quit her job due to boredom, distraction and pursue an indefinite period of homelessness, even though we all have desires of adventure and change.
Mona eventually dies of the cold, leaving no family or possessions behind. As a symbolic yet fictitious eulogy, ‘All part of a jigsaw puzzle which is invariably incomplete’ The film is a collection of fragments, descriptions of her travels as told by others. Personal prejudices and concerns over the life of a vagrant woman dominate their depictions of her. The figure of the woman alone is seen as a rare occurrence, provoking much curiosity. Varda uses pictures and sounds to express what one cannot put into words – the social stigma of living outside, the life of a Vagabond. As she lives outside common social boundaries, she must continue travelling through the landscape in order to survive, to progress.
Through Vagabond, Varda has created a document of travel and everyday life outside normality, and for me, depiction of an unfamiliar landscape– that generates meaning, not just memories. The sense of time passing in both films is a source of anxiety, marked by the search for shelter, food, companionship. Both look so much older than their years, and we know that time is running out for Mona as soon she will be dead. Johnny will be roaming the streets for as long as we can imagine.