The story begins with a corpse, and through this tragic lens, we learn about Mona Bergeron, a lonely vagrant, in a fictionalized investigation, through the eyes of all that crossed her path one winter in the countryside of France. After watching it twice, I am awed to discover such a brilliant and unusual film only now, after over 20 years of studying cinema. It belongs up there with the greatest of the greats, not only as a feminist film, but a masterpiece of storytelling, social commentary, and nuanced character.
Originally named Sans toit ni loi, “Without Roof nor Law”, the film, released in 1986, represents an early cross-genre experiment, mixing fiction and documentary styles, with a startling surrealist scene at the end. Ravishingly well-photographed, paced beautifully, expertly edited, the film is a stunning work. Mona meanders the countryside, small towns and graveyards with nothing but a backpack and a shredded tent. As we trace her journey in flashback, people in her story turn to address the camera as if being interviewed, to share their varied impressions of her.
Mona confesses to no purpose or worldview, other than her hatred for bosses and her belief that three is a crowd. She possesses a carelessness that allows her into places few others go. She exhibits sexual freedom, she accepts and turns down various invitations for help, she makes friends, and she unearths the long-dormant joy of an elderly woman. She also gets raped. The camera fixes on her every move, yet restrains from psychologizing or sympathizing, and depicts a hardy, unvarnished lifestyle of mere survival.
The film does, however, reveal plenty about the people who meet her and the worlds through which her movements pass. It adeptly teases out social beliefs that surround her and the self-constructed cages people live in. Yolande, a maid with a criminal no-good boyfriend, envies Mona’s freedom, as well as her fleeting yet tender relationship with a man, when Yolande discovers the two sleeping together in an abandoned chateau. A professor who studies tree disease adopts Mona as a car companion and views her as an aspect of her guilty conscience. An aspiring, wealthy graduate student despises her, simply for her outsiderness, as a potential threat to his status. When a Tunisian field worker takes her in, Mona enters a love relationship that is quickly undermined by circumstances. The Tunisian’s testimony about Mona has no words, delivered only through a heartbroken gaze into the camera.
This unspoken, unconditional love represents the feminist voice in the film, the one that allows Mona a space to exist outside the codes and strictures of society. Many of the town folk in the film reflect on the rarity of a sole woman wanderer. Indeed, with so few cultural prototypes of the female drifter, we can barely frame Mona, as she floats through the world, inured to overdetermined roles. While leaving her unframable, the film also shows us how precarious and short-lived this zoneless space can be.