Fearless Women On The Road: From Varda’s Vagabond To Zhao’s Nomadland

Mona and Fern are fearless women, warriors in their own right who have given the world the story of the flip side: the story of women on the road
Fearless Women On The Road: From Varda’s Vagabond To Zhao’s Nomadland

When I watched Chloé Zhao's Nomadland a few days ago, it reminded me of Agnès Varda's Vagabond (1985), and a further studying of these films helped me realise how bold they were in their portrayal of their women on the road. The films are cleverly crafted, and narrated in a sort of documentary fashion. The film makers have held the camera and interviewed the characters in a way that subtly breaks the fourth wall by making the director a character in the film, yet not in a prominent way. Needless to say, both Vagabond and Nomadland have many similarities, yet they are strong and independent in their own way.

Vagabond opens with its protagonist, Mona, a young girl, lying dead on a ditch and Agnès Varda's voice narrating who she is and where she might have come from: "No one claimed her body, I know little about her myself, but it seems to me, she came from the sea."

Much like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, Vagabond begins with the death of the central character and a journalist investigates the reasons that lead to her death. In the course of her investigation, Mona's journey on the road is revealed: the people she met, the hurdles she overcame, her strength, vigour, fearlessness and living-in-the-moment attitude to life. Mona is no warrior princess who wins an elaborate battle on a horseback and neither is there any tragedy; yet there's an element of quiet and melancholy as she walks the French highways and lives on beaches, at construction sites and in dilapidated buildings by herself, surviving the harsh world on her own terms and with her own strength.

From the events of the film we can gather that she wasn't satisfied with how she was living, bound by the rules of the society. She had taken to the road probably in an attempt to find herself, or to explore the joys and perils of being a drifter, but whatever the reason may be, the resolution stands firm in her eyes and movements: she is in it for the long haul. She doesn't form emotional connections with the people she meets on her way and she is content living her quite life, detached from the world. However, she does have worldly desires of food, beer, sex and fun.

With the progress of the film we see how the landscape changes from snow-covered lands to farms to bustling cities, and these changing landscapes reflect her mental journey. As the film draws to a close, we see the rough weather come back on screen and her failing condition. Ultimately, she dies on a cold night and the film goes back to where it had begun. She is not claimed by anyone and nobody mourns her death.

Although the film carries an essence of documentary in the way the interviews are taken, there are some New Wave elements too that sets the tone of the film apart. There is no three-part narrative, no elaborate sets, nothing that screams grandeur. There's a ruggedness and a rusticity that complements Mona's character and journey. Apart from Sandrine Bonnaire and a few other key role actors, most characters are played by non-professional actors and locals from the area.

In the beginning of the film, Agnès Varda wonders to herself if the people who knew Mona as a child remember her and think of her; as she dies and is wrapped up in a plastic bag like trash, we cannot help but ponder Varda's question. Her death wraps up the film, but her essence lingers.

A stark contrast to Mona is Fern from Nomadland. She's a middle-aged woman on the road and she has lived a full life with her husband, after whose demise she takes to the road. Zhao, the maker of the film, doesn't mark her presence inside the boundaries of the narrative, and Fern's journey is solely her own, revealed in her own course of time. Among the many similarities that reminded me of Vagabond is the use of landscapes as a medium of expressing the character's mental state. Fern begins her journey in the rough winter, signifying her difficulty in coming to terms with the loss of her husband; she traverses through the snow-covered terrain and gradually comes into the more pleasant weather conditions, living among a community of fellow nomads with whom she bonds, which reflects her acceptance of her new life.

She is often seen remembering her past and, unlike Mona, we know where she comes from, the life she had. Her character has a background and as a woman of an advanced age, her wisdom is reflected in the calculative risks she takes and the way she ensures a more comfortable journey on the road. She does not simply set out without giving the idea deep thought and without preparations to survive tough terrains. Although her journey is melancholic like Mona's, and she has lost her husband and her home, it doesn't reek of loneliness. She makes a home for herself on the road and friends along the way to whom she comes back again. She too is a solo traveller, with confidence, and she overcomes her own hurdles, both physical and mental. She is fearless and unstoppable even when her sister requests her to move in with her and settle into a more comfortable and static life. She embraces the road and her nomadic life, and her determination is evident with each passing scene.

Fern's journey, her motivation and her determination will remind anyone of the fearless face of Mona from Vagabond. She too is free of all shackles and defies being bound by the rules of society. She is just as free in spirit as was young Mona.

Nomadland, in many ways, is a subtle tribute to Varda's Vagabond and contains the new wave element of casting non-professional actors (like Bob Wells and Swankie, who are real life nomads). Yet what makes Nomadland stand apart is the victory of Fern on the road, in the face of all adversity. She carries on without fear and without any sign of giving up. Her van is seen disappearing into the vastness of the far stretched land, signifying she victoriously carried on living her life, on her own terms, as a nomad.

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