Sans toit ni loi

Synopsis: Sandrine Bonnaire won a Cesar award for her portrayal of Mona, a defiant young drifter who is found frozen in a ditch. Using a largely non-professional cast, famed New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda recollects Mona’s story through the flashbacks of those who encoutered her, producing the splintered portrait of an enigmatic woman. Told in sparsely poetic images set against the frozen landscape of mid-winter Nimes, this is Varda’s masterpiece.
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Sans toit ni loi 8.0

Filmed in a documentary-like style, ‘Sans toit ni loi’ attempts to introduce the viewer to the life of a wandering young woman (played exceptionally well by Sandrine Bonnaire) who, from the first few moments of the film, we know has been found dead in a ditch. It is a bit of a mystery: there are no signs of violence, there are no witnesses and it is unclear what has happened to her.

The film basically consists of a recounting of the events that led to this unfortunate end through the words of the people who knew her in her final days. Except that our protagonist is a lost soul: she is unpleasant, ungracious, discourteous, selfish, has a misplaced sense of entitlement, and takes advantage of people – so it goes without saying that her connections were tenuous at best and the information that is given to us may not paint a complete portrait.

Was she right in being detached from people as she was? For some people (like the teacher), she was basically a zoo animal to be observed and analyzed. For others, she was someone to be exploited. So maybe her attitude is justified. But then there’s also the PHD who has become a self-sustaining recluse and who offered her a chance to do the same: she completely squandered this opportunity. So perhaps the issue is with her.

Because she does have her problems: as her life tailspins towards oblivion, we come to realize that what initially seems to be a sense of independence and freedom is actually an inability to truly cope – that her situation is a direct result of her escapist nature (which, in turn, explains the fact that she persistently takes shortcuts in life). To illustrate her growing despondency and despair, the state of her cherished red boots gradually takes a turn for the worse – to the point that they’re barely hanging on, in tatters, by the closing credits.

There was one moment that completely resonated with me and it’s one of the close-up ‘interviews’ with the characters: the Tunisian man who almost became her boyfriend. As opposed to the others, who all had something to say about the young woman, he only looked at the camera mournfully, smelled the scarf he had once given her and says nothing – all he does is look into the camera’s eye at us. I felt that it best expressed his inner feelings and it was exactly what I’d hoped for; it was pitch-perfect.

Even though much of the cast were non-actors, it can be difficult to distinguish the pros from the amateurs in this film. The performances are solid all around and none of them draw attention to themselves, as they frequently do in award-winning performances; everything simply flows together in a sea of lives, of breathing, feeling, thinking people that we all cross every single day. And, as in real life, while none of these people would typically stand out, they are endlessly engaging in their own way.

My only real issue is in the editing. There were times when it was a bit jarring, as though scenes were incomplete or badly cut together. It was like slicing garlic with a saw instead of a razor blade. I’m not sure if it was intentional and what the point was, but it served to remind me that I was watching a film instead of keeping me immersed in the tale. It’s an unfortunate touch that I would love to understand.

Apart from this detail, however, ‘Sans toît ni loi’ is a grim, but very good film. It takes a cold, sober look at this vagabond’s life; no excuses are made, there is no sugar-coating or over-dramatization, and there certainly isn’t a Hollywood ending (or beginning, as the case may be) in store for the viewer. Cinematic frankness is a rare treat, and this is a perfect example of it.

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