This movie is probably my favorite Varda film yet, a deeply sad and moving portrayal of a human being on the margins. It features a remarkable performance by Sandrine Bonnaire (at just 17), who also gave an excellent performance two years earlier in À nos amours, and includes a number of professional and amateur actors who form a stunning and memorable ensemble. But the movie is entirely Varda's, and it's a remarkable display of thirty years of film experience.
Vagabond begins with Bonnaire's character, whom we later find out was named Mona, being found dead in a ditch by the side of the road. The remainder of the film is a flashback to her final months, intercut with documentary style thoughts of the people she has encountered. These thoughts are always offered once Mona has already moved on, and this to me is the essential structure of the film, perpetually one step behind this character, struggling to understand someone who lives life in a way that we are all either too smart or too cowardly to take up ourselves. Unlike junkies or criminals or crazy people, drifters are immediately understandable to people because their inability to take on responsibility or make an emotional connection mirrors our own frustration with these aspects of our lives, and the notion of total freedom is an unavoidable temptation. We all wish we had the courage to do it, even though we simultaneously know that it would never be as exciting or enjoyable as it seems. Much like poor people prefer to keep the taxes for rich people low because they might be rich someday, we hold out hope that we might one day take to the road, meet interesting people, take on interesting jobs, and live our lives with no responsibilities and no baggage.
Varda understands both sides of this perception, and makes no judgments on Mona or her way of life, instead preferring to struggle with her own place in society. It's what makes Vagabond more than an excellent character study, instead morphing it into an examination of our own fears and dreams. We reject dirt because we know we have to survive in our society, we believe in a hard day's work because if we don't then we'll starve. We insist on turning our backs on Mona, because there are too many Monas to help. One of the Criterion essays compared the film to Citizen Kane, and while the structural comparison is obvious, the more insightful point is that both films aren't so much about their titular characters as they are about the societies that surround them. Vagabond isn't about how someone becomes a drifter (we only learn that in vague terms here), just as Citizen Kane certainly isn't about why people become rich. Instead, the film is about our own place in society, the human connections we struggle to make, and a desperate desire to understand our place in the world.