She Came from The Sea: ‘Vagabond’ and The Violence of Desire

Agnès Varda’s ‘Vagabond,’ a cinematic portrait of a female drifter, is driven by the actions of those whose unrealistic desires go unfulfilled.

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Vagabond, Agnès Varda’s 1985 masterpiece, is a cinematic portrait of a wandering woman, dictated by those she encounters before the event of her untimely death. It’s the story of Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) as she seeks freedom from the constraints of a wage-slave, secretary life. What she finds, instead, is the lack of freedom provided to all women who exist as women. Her life free from capital instead becomes defined by the social, as she lives by her own wits and the care of strangers for months at a time. 

When I first watched Vagabond, I assumed it was a tragedy. I took it at its obvious moral, a callous moral, wherein a hopeless cause walks carelessly through life until she meets her inevitable end. As I look back, older and a tiny bit wiser, I can see the film for the horror it is. 

Because being a woman is terrifying, and I promise I have proof. 

One only has to look at the news to see women being followed to their homes, murdered for rejection, or being framed as fugitives for holding autonomy over their bodies. To be a woman in this world is to be wanted—not for oneself, but due to the condition of being a woman. Within Varda’s continuously feminist filmography, this idea is expressed nowhere more clearly than Vagabond.

Within the film, Mona’s story begins at its end, with the discovery of her dead body at the edge of a nearly empty field. Ominous strings and a slow zoom lead us to the path of a singular man, as he walks through rows of leafless shrubbery, collecting sticks. At the path’s edge, he stops in shock, dropping his bundle to reveal a pale, dirt-covered corpse in a nearby ditch. This body is, of course, Mona’s. 

Our first sight of the girl is her as lifeless, a mass of flesh found and quickly manhandled by arriving detectives. She’s unrecognized, unidentified, and quickly pronounced a “natural death.” Her body is the first thing we see. From there, a short narration brings us back to the beginning, as an empty field cuts quickly to an empty beach. Here’s Mona, alive and well, as she runs naked through a deluge of foaming waves. A calm narration tells us her name, as well as her origin. The voice, with quiet tenderness, claims “she came from the sea.” 

Scrolling through Tik Tok recently, as one does, I came across a quote of similar nature, written by the poet Trista Mateer within her mythic anthology from 2019, Aphrodite Made Me Do It. This poetic collection contains a conversation between the writer and Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire.  “Like everyone called a woman,” Mateer’s work begins, “they say I had no childhood. They say I rose from the sea fully formed, forced to bear the weight of other people’s desire.”

This introduction, of course, is a reference to the origin myth of Aphrodite, who was said to have been born from a pile of seafoam and be able to take the form of that which one desires most. It is also the story of Mona, who, as we mentioned, “came from the sea” herself. Like Aphrodite, Mona’s existence seems to begin in a fully-formed state. Vagabond’s narrator can only wonder as to who she was as a child; her interviews, which form the structure of the film, begin with those who knew her in the final weeks of Mona’s life, not before. For us, the audience of Mona’s story, her life begins there — naked, alone, and free amongst the waves. However, through the cinematic cut which follows, this tender moment is redefined by the presence of something else. 

Desire creeps into the picture, as Varda’s camera cuts quickly from an image of Mona on the beach to a similar, pornographic shot in a nearby corner store. The photograph contains a portrait of two women, naked, fishing amongst the waves, and is picked up by a young man who happened to have seen Mona several days before. This cut, connecting both scenes and beginning the momentum of Mona’s story, also introduces two separate contexts through which to view the events of Mona’s life. There’s the freer Mona, dancing naked amongst the waves without a care for her surroundings. And there’s Mona as she’s seen through the eyes of others, those social forces which define all existence, even when that existence is what one seeks to leave. To these men, Mona is a nude temptress, isolated and easy to approach. One of the men in this story (Jöel Fosse) says as much, as he encourages his shyer friend to approach her on the beach. “She’s not bad, eh?”

Despite her lack of intentions, or even any knowledge of these men’s existence, Mona has already become an object of desire simply by existing in her natural state. And we, the audience, are given both perspectives. Like Aphrodite, her female form inspires some kind of action within those who encounter her and continues to do so throughout the entirety of her limited lifetime. 

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In fact, the very next scene contains another instance of this action by way of desire, as Mona grabs a quick ride from a passing trucker (Patrick Schmidt). During their conversation, he offers her the bunk in the back, to which she replies, “I’ve heard that before.” Their talk continues, but now the man is frowning, near-silent. He stops and kicks her out. 

Within his mind, Mona was offering the trucker something sexual for his kindness. His decision to offer help was driven by his desire for her body. When that desire was denied, his kindness ended.  Shortly after that encounter, she’s given 30 francs by a mechanic (Pierre Imbert) to wash cars. He doesn’t trust her enough to pump gas for his customers. In his interview with the film’s narrator, he attributes his distrust to the nature of all-female drifters, “loafers and man-chasers.” This leads to a sequence in which Mona flirts with a younger man at the shop, this mechanic gets jealous, and is eventually seen leaving her tent with his jeans unbuttoned. Apparently, she told him he has a dirty mind. “The nerve,” he says of this, and the irony of his desire is not lost. 

But erotic desire isn’t the only set of expectations given to Mona. As it was for the goddess Aphrodite, preconceptions of Vagabond’s wanderer take many different forms. For example, the goat herders. After being told there was someone there who might give her a place to rest, Mona is taken in by a family of goat hoarders for what’s supposed to be one night. That morning, the father of the house (Sylvain) confesses to her his own history, a life on the road and the many friends he made, now dead. He speaks of a middle path; one he walks between freedom and loneliness: “My friends who stayed on the road are dead now, or else they fell apart.”

Mona does not leave after one night, and instead is gifted a trailer and a plot of land on which to grow potatoes. But the ground remains unworked, as Mona decides to smoke, read, and lounge rather than maintain her farm. This idle life soon leads to conflict, as the man exiles her from their farm for her laziness. “I gotta be a shepherd?” she replies; “If I’d studied, I wouldn’t live like you.” 

Within his attempt at generosity, the goat herder/learned philosopher prescribed Mona with the medicine he thought she needed. He saw her as someone to be saved and ignored her pleas to remain within her callous living. His desire to absolve any guilt for his fallen compatriots overrode Mona’s objections, and their relationship ended in bitter disappointment and abandonment. 

Because Mona, though the object of such desires, is not a willing recipient. She is crude, often stubborn, and too dirty for the tastes of most. Though she may take the form of one’s thoughts, though her body may warp under the strain of preconceived notion, her inner self remains true. It’s the inconsistency of these two existences which pushes her to the edge and eventually to her death. 

So far, men have been the catalyst of Mona’s demise, and yet they aren’t the only culprit. Nor are they the only culprit in today’s push for a unified form of femininity. Within Vagabond, these feminine forces reveal themselves in the character of Yolande (Yolande Moreau), one of the film’s only recurring interviewees.  Yolande’s first encounter with Mona occurs from afar, as she spies on the drifter and her then-boyfriend as they squat in her uncle’s chateau. From within the confines of her own struggling relationship, Yolande idolizes theirs, and attributes Mona with having a passion we know her not to possess. Though quickly abandoned by Mona, the relationship lives on within the Yolande’s mind, rich and romantic. Eventually, that romance is what leads Yolande to welcome Mona into the home of her employer, taking her in from the side of the road. She decides to pamper her, to balm her loneliness in a way she cannot balm her own. “I don’t want gratitude,” she states. But the moment Mona makes a joke cruder than she expects, her smile disappears. 

Later, Yolande leaves her employer’s home and returns to find Mona drinking and chatting with the old lady (Marthe Jarnias). The two had quickly become friends, their detachment from the surrounding world welding them to one another. Mona’s bluntness amused the woman.

Yolande is furious. This creature she sought to pity had done what she never could. Mona had been noticed by both her lover and her employer. Her freedom had put Yolande’s own obedience to shame, and so she asks her to leave under the guise of her boyfriend’s wishes. 

Mona’s actions, once again, have shattered the illusion of what someone hoped her to be. She was not obedient. She did not want to be saved. She was not an easy lay. She didn’t want to be a wife. She didn’t need a lover. She asked to be alone. She was herself, mortal and flawed. 

And so, she was abandoned, like a child’s toy cast aside when playtime ends.  

The actions of those surrounding Mona, bred by desire, and their consequent abandonment once Mona’s mortality is revealed, are what pushes the vagabond’s journey along its doomed path. It’s her inability to live up to the holy expectations which condemn her. 

Mona dies because she is a woman seeking freedom. She says as much, many times. She seeks not to work for a job she hates. She seeks not to fake love for a man she despises. She seeks to learn and to live in her own way. And, although her life as a drifter allowed her to escape those capitalistic chains to which she was previously confined, it also left her vulnerable to the full social weight of the world. Her existence relied upon actions that relied upon desire, and when she refused to conform to it, she died. Like Aphrodite, she was saddled with the blame. A natural death, inevitable, awaiting all-female drifters, “loafers and man chasers.”

But did Aphrodite ask to be desired? Did she ask for her birth to bring such erotic attention? Did she ask for her own body to incite mythic violence? Or was she, like all women, forced to bear it?

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