Criterion Sunday 74: Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985)

After a period working on documentaries, particularly in the USA (some of these have been released on Criterion’s Eclipse sub-label), Varda had one of her biggest commercial successes with this story of a drifter called Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) found dead in the south of France. As is typical of her filmmaking style, Vagabond (the French title translates as “Neither roof nor law”) has a powerful documentary quality, being structured around a series of interviews with those whose path Mona crossed, sometimes breaking the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera. Varda’s fluidly moving camera tracks Mona in her movement from one place to another, as she finds temporary respite or shelter, and occasionally even a companion (though she is as likely to shuck these people off without any apology as the opportunity arises; scenes sometimes start with her walking beside someone, and then just leaving them, unprompted and unremarked upon). It’s a master class in filmmaking style, accomplished in framing and movement without being show-offy, but it’s also a deeply empathetic portrait of an often unlikeable central character, whose direction is largely her own choice — at least within the limits of the harsh wintery environment, not to mention those forces of authority she meets. Bonnaire is riveting in the central role, as she becomes ever dirtier (contrasted with other female characters, who are sometimes seen bathing to emphasise the contrast) and is gradually divested of her possessions as her shoes inexorably wear down, though she never loses her dignity or desire to keep moving. There are so many little moments of good humour, fleeting portraits of people living with what they have (but more often have not) got, that the film is never boring, and it’s certainly never condescending.

Criterion Extras: The director has filmed some excellent extras to this disc, which given her strength in the documentary format, are all well worth watching. The most significant is Remembrances (2003), in which Varda looks back on the film and its impact and talks to her star Sandrine Bonnaire as well as other people who appeared in the film, revisiting some of them and asking what they remember about the film (in much the way their characters recall Mona within the film). She also amusingly reveals that in fact trees were central to her original idea, hence the long digression about canker in the film and the presence of Macha Méril’s character, who looks after dying plane trees. The Story of an Old Lady is meanwhile a shorter piece she shot at the time of making the film, about the rich old woman played by Marthe Jarnias (herself far from rich), though the film is presented as it survives, rotten with mould. There’s a short contemporary radio interview with novelist Nathalie Sarraute (to whom the film is dedicated), prefaced by Varda, though as the interview makes clear, Varda isn’t exactly sure where the inspiration lies exactly. There’s also an informative conversation between Varda and the film’s composer in Music and Dolly Shots (2003), where she talks a bit more about the key lateral tracking shots which structure the film and how these were combined with the musical score.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographer Patrick Blossier; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

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Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1962)

I have this feeling that among the famous auteurs of the French New Wave, Éric Rohmer is the one most apt to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s that he lacks a really stand-out work (although 1969’s Ma nuit chez Maud gave him some of his initial success), or that his directorial style avoids much of the flashiness of his contemporaries. His film career, too, took a little longer to take hold, not least because he was heavily involved as editor of the influential Cahiers du cinéma film journal in the early part of the 1960s. Certainly, his debut feature film, produced in 1959, the same year as the other notable debuts of Truffaut and Godard, was delayed in its release for a number of years, and never really attained the same kind of either critical or commercial success. But this is all a bit unfair to the film, which has plenty to recommend it. Le Signe du lion is a beautiful evocation of Paris with a great sense of place (Rohmer always seemed to have the most knack for capturing the spirit of wherever he was filming), shot in luminous black-and-white in some iconic settings along the river and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

If the film’s shooting locations are quite swanky locales, even by the standards of over 50 years ago, it only serves to emphasise the distance its protagonist Pierre (Jess Hahn) has to fall. He may not start off rich, but he cuts a louche, overfed figure, from a solidly middle-class American-Swiss family, and pursues a bohemian lifestyle (as a musician with distinctly modernist proclivities). When a promised inheritance windfall doesn’t materialise, the debts he’s accrued begin to take their toll, and with all his well-connected friends off for their summer holidays (the date intertitles are given prominence), he gets progressively more desperate as July wears on into August. Streets which were once packed with familiar faces start to become more alien to him, friends replaced by Europeans on holiday. This disconnect is made literal as a downwards class mobility by his ever more grubby clothes and dishevelled appearance.

Aside from this sense of place, what Rohmer captures so well, and so subtly, is the way that Pierre’s desperation takes hold. At first he lives on credit at various hotels, having run-ins with the staff, barely making ends meet. We see him walking the streets in his freshly laundered shirt and jacket, passing rough sleepers while frittering away spare francs on inessential items like stain remover for his trousers. But when finally kicked out of his accommodation, it doesn’t take long for this to seem ridiculous, as his shoes start to give way and he’s reduced to fishing out flotsam from the river in the hope it might be discarded food he can eat. But the film isn’t all grimness, and there are periodically sparks of hope, as when he falls into the company of a fellow homeless artist-of-sorts alongside the river.

Throughout all of this, there are continuities with Rohmer’s later filmmaking. Its setting over the summer holiday period is one that he would return to many times (not least in Le Rayon vert 25 years later, likewise marked out by title cards with the date, as well as 1996’s Conte d’été and others). Then we have those solo male protagonists, so often creatures of high-flown intellectual taste, which might suggest some form of autobiographical self-identification, but if so, it’s one riven by self-criticism. For his male protagonists, though they may be nice enough guys, are never really heroes, and are often marked by some weakness in their morals (which is partly the great subject of his six subsequent films, grouped together as the ‘Six Moral Tales’). In Le Signe du lion, there’s a compassion instead for the experience of homelessness, and the way the homeless are patronised and barely tolerated by polite society, but I’m not always convinced that this compassion extends to the protagonist. There’s a nagging sense in my mind that Rohmer is judging Pierre, whether for falling into this situation, or for his slight sense of aloofness even when he’s at his lowest ebb. This judgement would only become clearer in subsequent films (and I hope to convey this in future reviews, whenever I get round to them; they’ll show up in my Criterion Sunday series).

I don’t mean any of that to be a criticism of Rohmer – if anything I think it marks him out as being every bit the equal of his contemporaries as a director and screenwriter, with a great concern for his characters. Le Signe du lion is a first feature, but it should stand alongside those other more famous titles, as a great work in its own right.

The Sign of Leo film posterCREDITS
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Rohmer and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jess Hahn; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.