What is the difference between a dead body and a nearly dead person? Is it not a great gulf? Is not that gulf as great as the distance between the furthest stars and even further? That’s obvious, but strangely we can forget. People become topics of conversation, objects of judgement, things to behold. We put people in boxes, including ourselves.We simplify our world by simplifying each other. But it is a survival tactic that leads to death.
Agnes Varda’s film Sans toit ni loi (1985), translated as “without roof or law” (English title Vagabond), begins with a dead body, but ends with a living, breathing, suffering, confused, crying, dying human. And in that difference is the true power of the film.
Like Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd, Sans toit ni loi begins with a body (or death), and the story that follows is the story of that body. Varda has not made an easy film. The story is episodic, but the arc of the main character is not really an arc as much as a steadily sloping line downwards to the right. But we have seen these kinds of stories before, the inevitable demise of a person as their life tragically spirals towards tragedy or death. In that light Sans toit ni loi could be understood as a meditation on nihilism. But I don’t think it is only that.
Mona Bergeron, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, is a woman without a compass, without any purpose other than staying alive and finding small, fleeting pleasures. She may be running from something or someone, but we don’t know. She might have been abused or abandoned, but we don’t know. What we do know is that at the beginning of the film we see that she has died in a shallow culvert, in the middle of winter, in a farmer’s field. We also know that she is fully human, even though her existence is truncated and deeply flawed. She would seem to be free: Free of life’s constraints, life’s worries, life’s responsibilities, life’s burdens.
Mona’s life has become distilled down to the barest rudiments of survival. It would be tempting to think of Mona as merely an animal, as a being without a soul. That would be wrong. Though she may not see it, she is an inherently valuable creature regardless of her history or her choices.
The first shot of the film displays her twisted body in the clean morning light almost as a work of art, nearly as an object. The last shot of the film shows her minutes before she dies, and then fades to black as she cries from deep hopelessness and emptiness. If it does anything at all, Sans toit ni loi strips away our tendency to see Mona as the “other.” She is not an object, or even a subject of investigation. In the film’s final moment she is a person profoundly like me, like you.
This last shot reminds us that, though we might judge her throughout the film, we cannot see her merely as worthless and deserving of her fate. Her final frailty is the frailty of us all. We are all so week, we are all so mortal, and we are all so contingent. For any number of reasons Mona has made a lot of bad choices, but she has done so as a human being, from within her will, not merely from instinct. She may reap what she sows, but in the end don’t we all.
If Citizen Kane‘s moral is banks shouldn’t raise children, then maybe Sans toit ni loi‘s moral is life is hard and freedom is even harder, and total freedom is death. Regardless, though Varda has given us a story that has little plot, and a character who does nothing but wanders aimlessly, yet this film speaks with the voice of the Universe.
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