In times as motionless as these, our screens provide an escape route from everyday quarantine routines. They offer the possibility to move without moving, to visit a different space and time from the comfort of our homes. They allow us to embark on a “stationary voyage”.
This week, we propose to accompany three wandering women from three consecutive decades. Mona, Rosetta and Wendy do not simply move, though. Their travels spring from a restless necessity to take flight. They flee and drift in an often seemingly aimless manner, constantly bumping into society’s walls, forced to deal with the search for money in the present while striding on in search of a better life in the future.
In Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), we spend the last “homeless and lawless” weeks of young Mona’s life on the road. Roaming the agrarian plains of the south of France, Mona moves in and out of long tracking shots and in and out of the lives of the people she meets. While Varda lets her protagonist stroll slowly but steadily through vast and desolate landscapes, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne film Rosetta as she runs frantically from one place to another looking for a job in the city of Liège, Belgium. The camera here stays close to the young woman it tries to keep up with. “It moves me to the heart of my heart, this film about the necessity of life, the impossibility of morality, the soil of human experience,” Nicole Brenez wrote about Rosetta (1999). In our final selection, Wendy and Lucy (2008) by Kelly Reichardt, Wendy, too, tries to keep up. Travelling through the United States with her dog, Lucy, and a very simple future ahead (finding work in Alaska), she is confronted with a complex here and now when her car breaks down and she runs out of money.
Sans toit ni loi (Agnès Varda, 1985) is available on Criterion and MUBI.
Rosetta (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 1999) is available on UK Chili.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008) is available on Vimeo.
A young woman's body is found frozen in a ditch. Through flashbacks and interviews, we see the events that led to her inevitable death.
“No one claimed the body. She had died a natural death without leaving a trace. But people she had met recently remembered her. Those witnesses helped me tell of the last weeks of her last winter. She left her mark on them. I know little about her myself, but it seems to me that she came from the sea.”
“Varda’s vagabond is, fittingly, a traveller who turns the image field she crosses into a mobile writing, a wanderer who produces a ‘motion’ picture, a figure for whom errancy and venture are a scriptural activity. The landscape she traverses is recognizably France of the 1980s: the Midi over-planted with vineyards; country houses and resorts uninhabited during winter; burglaries at epidemic stage and the omnipresent yapping guard dogs; the train-station traînés, paumés, and punks, all of France’s marginalia – chief among whom are the migrant workers from the Maghreb, the labourers in the vineyards. But if the passage of Mona, the nomad, situates events in the here-and-now, much of the film pulls us back to the archaic, to figures that have long populated the psyche and found expression in the plastic arts of the oldest civilizations – since paint was first applied to pottery and statuary. The Mona lifted frozen, petrified, from a ditch is unearthed like a statue by archaeologists who then measure the site, while police photographers murmur, ‘Le visage, prenez le visage.’ The film begins with a lengthy tracking shot towards a prehistoric tumulus marking the place of her death.”
“Watching her from a distance, the camera often catches her in sweeping glances. Frequently the camera is already tracking across a landscape when Mona enters, striding along a highway or across a barren field, and it continues moving after she’s left the frame, almost as if to express the elusiveness of any project that attempts to know someone from the outside.
Varda also aligns Mona with the French landscape. The film was shot in Southern France near Nimes, the place where Varda grew up and that she dubs the ‘wild South’. Speaking with critic Annette Insdorf in The New York Times in 1986, Varda said, ‘I’m tired of the fact that French films never have space, as if the entire universe of the French cinema were psychological, internal and enclosed’. Varda opts for the external, going so far as to prevent us from gleaning Mona’s motivations, leaving us to judge her as we will.
The film’s original title, Sans toit ni loi, offers further insight; translated more accurately, the title means ‘Without a Roof or Law’ or ‘Homeless and Lawless’, both of which point to the fact that Mona refuses the basic aspects of contemporary social structures. In many ways, Mona shares more with the innumerable barking dogs that populate the film, refusing to play by the social mores that dictate that citizens be useful. Mona is instead driven by some internal negativity that perhaps has something in common with Georges Bataille’s notion of dépense, or the useless expenditure of energy that cannot be reabsorbed into an economy in a manner that is useful. Mona refuses to be predictable, much less productive; she eschews everything given to her, instead drifting along aimlessly.”
“The tracking shots emphasise Mona’s movements, yet far from confirming her freedom, they often highlight her isolation and signal all the social spaces that she cannot access because of her status of outsider. Mona is often seen walking along high walls, deserted roads, past closed gates. She also walks from right to left on the screen, which goes against the normal film reading habits of Western audiences, from left to right. […] The tracking shots are also less focused on Mona than it may initially seem: frequently, the camera is already tracking across a landscape when Mona moves into the frame and the shot continues moving after she has left the frame. […] On several occasions, Mona leaves the frame for a few seconds before reappearing. This filming strategy illustrates how difficult it is to keep the elusive Mona within the frame of the camera. She embodies marginality and cannot be contained within the frameworks set by society – or film directors.”
“De eigennaam van het personage, Mona, doet onwillekeurig denken aan wat Leibniz aangeeft als de monadologie en Deleuzes omkering ervan in zijn concept van de nomadologie. In het monadisch denksysteem is ieder deel van het geheel verbonden door een algemeen beginsel. Voor Leibniz is een monade iets of iemand dat/die opereert binnen de gesloten eenheid van een universum. In navolging van Deleuze koppelde Braidotti Leibniz’ monadologie aan het representatieve denken en het normatieve rationaliteitsbeginsel waarbij één enkel vast referentiepunt het centrerende principe uitmaakt. Verschillen in de waarneming zijn daarbij enkel het gevolg van een verschillende helderheidsgraad van de waarneming, maar in principe ziet iedereen volgens de monadologie hetzelfde: ‘Like puppets manipulated by their master, in Leibniz’s thought, each “window” open onto the unlimited universe of being is circumscribed by its own position in this universe.’”
- 1. Agnes Varda in the voice-over of the opening scene.
- 2. Florianne Wild, “Ecriture and Cinematic Practice in Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi,” The Film & the Book, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer 1990, 92.
- 3. Holly Willis, “Vagabond,” Senses of Cinema, April 2004.
- 4. Isabelle Vanderschelden, Studying French Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, Auteur Publishing, 2013), 103.
- 5. Christel Stalpaert, “Intersubjectief wandelen met het landschap: nomadisch denken in Agnès Varda's Sans toit ni loi (1985) en Chantal Akermans Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978),” in Johan Swinnen (ed.), Anders zichtbaar. Zingeving en humanisering in de beeldcultuur (Brussel: VUBPress, 2010), 121-134.
Every day Rosetta leaves for the front – which means she searches for work, for a job that she finds, loses, finds again, is taken from her, that she gets back. She's obsessed by the fear of vanishing, the shame of being a misfit. She wants a normal life just like everybody else, among everybody else.
“The plot comprises little more than this: Rosetta losing a job and searching for another, several times over. The melodrama that one keeps expecting to see − of violence or sexual abuse − never eventuates. Yet few films have the power or sheer monumentality of Rosetta. It makes us feel the killing weight of every object, the difficulty of every gesture, the awkwardness of every interaction.
Rosetta − a sullen, driven, unglamorous, entirely ordinary teenager − undergoes a kind of transfiguration before our eyes. Without once losing her tearing, fraught contact with reality, she becomes for us a veritable Joan of Arc. Her screen presence ignites every kind of passion within us: love, exasperation, compassion, social indignation. Some viewers will inevitably compare her with Björk in Dancer in the Dark (2000). But Rosetta is no idealised projection of a misty fantasy − and the extraordinary performance of Dequenne attains a fusion of craft and pure being that the cinema is rarely privileged to showcase.
How many movies − beyond a few horror-thriller specials − make viewers hyper-conscious of the hero’s breathing? Rosetta is a film completely geared to the physicality of its main character; it is almost as if the movie and her form a single, pulsating entity. We accompany Rosetta every step of her way, plunging down corridors, through heavy traffic, across lawns. Every piece of terrain is a gauntlet. Whenever she ceases moving, the world around her suddenly stops dead − and then the tears, the dread and the disturbed breathing return.”
“More closely than classical neo-realism, the Dardennes’ recent films approach the Bresson of Au hasard Balthasar or Mouchette by distilling their stories into almost mythical, mysterious tales of sacrifice and desire while still fully rendering the vivid details of labor and class.”
Harvard Film Archive2
“I saw Rosetta three weeks ago, and haven’t recovered from it since. ... It moves me to the heart of my heart, this film about the necessity of life, the impossibility of morality, the soil of human experience. [A teaching colleague] told me that he couldn’t watch it because he thought too much about [Robert Bresson’s] Mouchette, but precisely, it’s at last Mouchette today, our Mouchette, the one we deserve, without any heaven and any transcendence. Her scream, ‘Mama! Y’a d’la boue! Y’a d’la boue!’ [‘Mama! It’s full of mud! It’s full of mud!’] haunts me, I can’t forget it, it’s exactly the despair of being in life without any pathos, any margin, just real life in the immediacy of the impulse.”
“I’ve heard that one critic has attacked Rosetta for not being Brechtian. I’m tempted to counter that the veritable theme song of Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ − ‘First comes bread, then comes morals’ — could easily serve as one of Rosetta’s rationales for her behavior. But then I recall Hannah Arendt’s gloss on how this line was received in pre-Hitler Germany: It was ‘greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht had sought by it.’
I don’t think it’s possible to misread Rosetta in any of the ways outlined by Arendt, so perhaps I’m misreading the film critic. Clearly Rosetta isn’t esoteric or cerebral or difficult to understand; it isn’t remotely boring or even slightly pretentious. Its only crimes are that it isn’t in English (though it doesn’t have much dialogue anyway), it has something powerful to say about what’s happening right now across the planet, and millions haven’t been spent promoting it.”
- 1. Adrian Martin, “Rosetta (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 1999),” February 2001.
- 2. Harvard Film Archive, “Realism Reinvented: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne”.
- 3. An e-mail by Nicole Brenez in: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2004), 67.
- 4. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “True Grit. Rosetta,” Chicago Reader, 13 January 2000.
Wendy is on her way to Alaska with her dog Lucy in the hope of finding work there, when her car breaks down in the small town in Oregon. She's broke and steals dog food for Lucy during the delay. Then it goes wrong: Wendy is arrested and when she is released later that day, Lucy has disappeared. In her attempts to find her dog, Wendy has to depend on the helpfulness of strangers.
“Nergens ter wereld kunnen de treinen zo hartverscheurend huilen als de goederentreinen in Amerika. Je hoort ze in de verte. Ze gaan naar de verte. Lang voordat ze passeren daveren ze al als spooktreinen over de lege rails en zingen een klaagzang over een land dat z’n dromen over treinsporen van de ene naar de andere oceaan exporteert. En als je heel goed luistert, te midden van al dat gedreun en gedender, hoor je de stemmen van de hobo’s, de bedelaars, de zwervers, de dagloners, die van de ene vrachtwagon op de andere springen, de droom over het spoorwegnet achtervolgend. Het verhaal van die hobo’s is de alternatieve geschiedenis van Amerika, van de Grote Depressie, van mannen die van de ene op de andere dag niets meer hadden en hoopten dat er achter de horizon wel iets voor ze was. Werk. Water. Een kindhearted woman. Elke keer als in Wendy and Lucy een vrachttrein fluit, hoor je de echo van dat verhaal. Alleen is het nu een meisje dat op reis is, in deze tot stilstand gekomen roadmovie.”
“The most expressive, most heartbreaking moment in Wendy and Lucy involves a small sum of money changing hands, a gesture that encapsulates both Ms. Reichardt’s humanism and her unsentimental sense of economic reality. Whatever big dreams may be driving Wendy, her mind is necessarily focused on dollars and cents.
Her plan is to find work in a fish cannery, maybe in Ketchikan. “I hear they need people up there,” she says. It’s a plain and practical statement that is also terribly sad in its implications. Apart from Lucy, there may not be anyone else who needs or wants Wendy.”
“Reichardt has described her films as “just glimpses of people passing through”. The young woman stranded in small-town Oregon in search for her lost dog passes through “pure optical and sound situations” in which the character doesn’t know how to adequately respond and instead becomes a witness to time passing. She sets out on a directionless Deleuzian “stationary voyage” through the “any-space-whatever” of a former industrial town that has yielded to wear and ennui, a bland and fleeting world where a lasting connection can apparently only be found in the company of animals.”