Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) begins with its end: the discovery of a female transient’s dead body triggers the film’s quest to understand the young woman and the events in the weeks leading up to her untimely demise. Through flashbacks, we the audience learn about how a girl named Mona (played by the fantastic Sandrine Bonnaire) lived her life on the road and what feelings this non-traditional lifestyle stirred in those who encountered her.
The vagabond as a character in literature and film has existed for well over a century. The term “vagabond” originated from British law and took on political significance during the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th century Europe when, as a figure of suspicion, constables could “collar vagabonds and force them to show their means of support.” While the original French title of Vagabond does not utilize the term (the literal translation is “without roof or law”), it’s use of vagabond as the English version’s title is significant in it’s political connotations. As the title of this entry indicates, Mona represents a puzzling figure to those around her as one who rejects the social norms expected of her gender and class. This early scene demonstrates the ways in which Mona’s status as a young female drifter sometimes results in confrontations:
But while some characters see Mona as a vulnerable target for their advances, others–particularly women–admire her for her strength. Mona’s refusal to remain fixed in one location, to be tied to any particular relationship, defies norms of femininity. By contrast, we learn of Yolande, a maid to an elderly woman and girlfriend of a verbally abusive boyfriend. Interestingly, Yolande confesses to the audience that she admired Mona for her passion and freedom. As foils, Yolande clearly falls on the feminine end of the gender spectrum, taking care of those around her, while Mona worries solely about her own desires and needs, as demonstrated by her breaking up with various men throughout her journey. In this way, Mona reveals Yolande’s desire to break out of the constraints of femininity.
For other characters, Mona also challenges notions of class. While sharing a bottle of champagne, a female professor questions Mona about how she came to be a transient. Mona divulges that she previously studied to be a typist. “Why did you drop out?” the professor asks. “Champagne on the road’s better!” Mona responds. In other words, Mona chooses the pleasures of life on the road over the stability of a regular paycheck. This lack of concern over class also manifests itself in her appearance–her tattered cloths and dirty hair reveal her status to all who encounter her, repelling some and attracting others as demonstrated by the trailer below:
Through its convention of character confessionals, Vagabond reveals the conflicts that Mona stirs in each individual she encounters, and in the process, forces audience members to do the same. That Mona dies at the film’s introduction and conclusion does not resolve these tensions but produces more, for in her early death, Mona’s aspirations remain uncompromised. It’s this inability to compromise that makes Mona a truly radical figure.