Vagabond remains Varda’s greatest critical and box office success (it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and earned its young star a French César award). The film follows, through flashbacks, the last weeks in the life of a leather-jacketed, alienated teenage drifter (Bonnaire) who has been wandering the south of France in the cold autumn, interacting with an array of various locals, sleeping where she can, trying at times to embrace life, and eventually giving up on it. The film’s use of location and its peppering of nonactors among the professional cast give it a documentary feel, though everything has been carefully crafted and set to masterful rhythms and exquisite cinematography. Varda presents a cross-section of provincial French life and demonstrates how deeply at odds it is with the free spirit of her protagonist.
Music (hence the “Opera” of the title) links these documentary scenes from the vegetable-market on the rue Mouffetarde in Paris. Varda herself was pregnant at the time she made this film, and the images and moods reflect the subjectivity, the peculiarly heightened senses, of her condition as she seeks out symbolic reinforcement in the objects and people around her. The director insisted that this work was neither reportage nor documentary but a special genre she preferred to call “neighborhood cinema.”