At the beginning of Agnes Varda's "Vagabond," a movie that virtually shines with integrity, a girl (Sandrine Bonnaire), the "vagabond" of the title, is found in a ditch, frozen to death. What follows is the story of how the girl, Mona, got there, as the movie flashes back to a life adrift, to the random encounters with fellow vagabonds, farmers, lewd truck drivers, and the others who let themselves into the girl's life through lust, kindness or simple curiosity.
The movie is in every way the antidote to the empty pictorialism, the gauzy images of civilized life, that French films sometimes fall into. The France of "Vagabond" is seedy, diseased, rife with decay, and almost no one in the movie seems to have taken a bath since the liberation of Paris -- the entire country badly needs a paint job.
While Varda likes to move the camera, the movie's strongest when the camera merely records; the images have a remarkable clarity, vibrant with Varda's hard, merciless white light.
Merciless is the watchword for "Vagabond," which is also the antidote for all the romantic teen-age-angst movies ever made. Varda doesn't swaddle her heroine in nobility or glaze her with claims for the doomed, heightened sensitivity of youth. This isn't Young Werther, it's Young Worthless, a dour, square-faced girl with irritable eyes, an insufferable moocher without a trace of politeness or good humor.
Each of the people who encounter her (including a number of nonactors) remembers her differently -- roaming the country on her sturdy legs, she's a walking Rorschach blot. A professor who picks her up while she's hitchhiking makes her into a symbol of freedom; a dropout philosopher with a goat farm makes her into a kindred soul; for any number of local yokels, she's an easy roll in the hay.
She is, of course, none of these, but if the film is structured like Kurosawa's "Rashomon," in spirit it's closer to Shohei Imamura's "Vengeance Is Mine," a similarly remorseless look at the unaccommodated harshness of life.
But Imamura celebrated that harshness, from the Olympian perspective of a murderous god -- he's a moralist, although a scary one. "Vagabond," on the other hand, has no moral center. It's one thing not to explain a phenomenon like Mona in the clinical style of a TV movie, another not to explain it at all. Varda is content to show a slice of life, and while her eye is unassailable, you never feel the events resonating in her soul. In the end, the movie may be just as pictorial as those other films, only in a different style: coolly solipsistic and merely esthetic.
Vagabond, opening today at the K-B Paris, is unrated and contains some violence and sexual themes.