by Melanie Reed
Since its inception, film has been employed to raise society’s awareness of the plight of its abandoned or marginalized members. But the ways these kinds of stories have been told vary as dramatically as the ways they’ve been told in literature and nonfiction. What kinds of story elements best help us to identify and feel another’s pain? Sometimes this is best achieved simply by the close observation of a solitary individual’s daily life. In film as well as literature, the scenes and sensory details must be deployed in effective choice and sequence to create an atmosphere that progressively paints a picture of a character. Filmmakers who choose to “show vs tell” take the harder but subtler route. The material must feel realistic, yet have symbolic content. The actors must work diligently and deeply to display nuanced responses to their experiences that in many cases take the place of dialogue. If we as viewers are open to it, this kind of slowly building picture of a person who is lost or struggling can in the end touch us more than either a comprehensive documentary with many interviewees or a docudrama-style treatment with strongly telegraphed dialogue, “dramatic” music, and a morally black and white ending.
The theme of waifs and strays can be an uneasy one. We can identify, because at the end of the day, we are all alone in the world. But to what extent might we try to help each other out along the way? Some films on this topic don’t answer this question directly, but merely plant a seed.
In the 1994 film Crows (or Wrony) by Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska, the protagonist is a girl of about 10. Neglected by her single mother who locks her out of the apartment while having sex, this “Crow” is often left to roam the streets, on the lookout for whatever entertainment she can find. Already wise to the uncaring and manipulative ways of the adult world, she is (or has become) self-protective and self-sufficient but not withdrawn — rather, by turns, irrepressibly angry, wistful and playful. A brash, resourceful “wild child,” she is all too ready to defend herself physically and verbally, but also looks for and creatively finds opportunities to play, either alone or with a temporary playmate. The mood of the film is somber, yet poetic. Beautiful dramatically lit shots of the seaside town setting showcase the emotionally intense, yet fleeting atmosphere in which this child lives – the calm, deserted streets contrasting sharply with her driven, desperate energy.
One of the things this “Crow” impulsively swoops down on is another child. Having (too early) given up (or been deprived of) the role of child herself, yet still longing for play and connection, she “kidnaps” a much younger girl out of her family’s yard. Identifying herself to the child as her new “mummy,” she takes the child home with her, performs perfunctory caretaking tasks, plays with her and scolds her. The two children are portrayed as being frozen in their own self-made world, eventually drifting along the shoreline in a small fishing boat that the “Crow” has commandeered.
The “Crow” seldom allows herself to feel sad or vulnerable. But her young charge’s request of a bedtime song triggers something painfully powerful in her about the mother-child connection. The film ends with her asking her own mother to “hold me tight.” Will this prompt a new, healthier connection between mother and child? This film does not choose to say. It’s my belief that “Crows” is meant to step halfway into an incipient tragedy in the making: the child is on a precarious edge, but both mother and child are probably already too deeply embedded in their inevitable trajectories for much change to be possible. Whatever reading you choose, the naturalistic acting of Karolina Ostrozna as the “Crow” is superb.
In the French-Belgian Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film Rosetta, we see an older girl, one who, at 17, has still been thrust too early into the burdens of adulthood. This protagonist’s desperation and self-preservation still dominate, but any playfulness has now been lost, replaced by a grim determination to survive at all costs. Like Crows, the setting alternates between city and nature (in this case, the forested campground of Rosetta and her mother’s trailer home), and the viewer is invited to simply follow and observe this abandoned girl on her journey – the hand-held camera and absence of music keeping us more than focused on her presence; it is as if we occupy her life.
Saddled with an alcoholic mother, the eponymous Rosetta has become her caretaker, and though her mother may have once been the breadwinner, her deterioration is causing this task to fall more and more onto her daughter’s shoulders. Like the “Crow,” Rosetta distrusts authority figures, and though she must deal with them, she is too cynical and impatient to “make nice,” instead aggressively demanding what she believes to be her basic rights. The camera and Rosetta are almost constantly in motion, and we follow her red jacket as she traps fish in a nearby stream, job hunts, bargains to sell the used clothes her mother has mended, and exchanges her boots in their outdoor hiding place so as to preserve her “good” shoes.
Actress Emilie Dequenne is beautiful, but because her character maintains a perpetually guarded expression and seems to have rejected the kind of femininity that has trapped her mother, we see her as almost sexless – so suspicious of men that when she is unexpectedly approached at home by Riquet, a young man who has come to let her know of a job opportunity, she physically attacks him. After repeated helpful gestures from Riquet, she cautiously becomes more open to connection. But like a domestic animal turned feral by mistreatment, her attitude never really goes beyond a provisional tolerance, and her awkwardness in the scene where Riquet attempts to interact with her pleasantly by feeding her, playing music for her, and trying to dance with her is painful to watch. Like the “Crow,” Rosetta is reluctant to appear vulnerable, and the only time we really see this is in her whispered dialogue with herself, which only takes the form of a short list of “affirmations.”
In keeping with her escalating violent reactions to unfair or manipulative treatment, we see Rosetta reaching the point where moral and ethical concerns weigh less and less compared to the dangerous necessity of having to depend too much on others, and eventually she snares a real job in much the same way that she has snared her fish. But success is precarious in Rosetta’s world, and she returns from her first day at work only to find her mother passed out in the yard. Devastated at this galling indication of her mother’s worsening condition that may preclude her being able to leave home long enough to work, Rosetta sees no way out. But even suicide proves to be too difficult, as the gas runs out and she’s forced to pay for and lug a heavy new canister across the trailer park.
The film ends with an implicit rapprochement between Rosetta and Riquet, whose job she has taken but who still seems to feel some measure of pity for her. Like Crows, this is not a happy ending as much as it is a sense of a stubborn character finally acknowledging that they have hit bottom. Does this mean that Rosetta’s life will now improve? It’s more likely that her life will now take the shape of her mother’s life: becoming dependent upon male providers out of necessity.
Steeped in the social realist tradition, this film has no frills; each frame is solely in the service of reflecting the character’s experience in the moment, and the dialogue serves only to heighten, punctuate, or illustrate certain moments. Rosetta won the Palm d’Or and Best Actress awards at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and was instrumental in inspiring new labor laws for Belgian youth, including a requirement for employers to pay teen workers at least the minimum wage.
The girls in Crows and Rosetta are scavengers who at least have some form of home base. But the protagonist of Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy has left home altogether. Again the setting plays a role, alternating between the street and buildings of the small Oregon town where Wendy is stranded, and its surrounding woods and fields. Even more than Crows and Rosetta, we are dropped abruptly into this character’s life, with little background information. Nevertheless, the understated yet emotionally powerful acting of Michelle Williams and the exquisitely edited camerawork create a full palette for both the character’s and the viewer’s experience.
Although not much older than Rosetta, Wendy’s gamine tomboy character is more relaxed and patient, though still wary around strangers and self-protective enough to wear a money belt. From glimpses of her painstakingly itemized travel notebook, we get the sense that she has planned her trip with the last of her limited funds, and from her awkward call to family members, we learn that she may have no one who is really there for her. In a sudden run of bad luck, her car breaks down, she’s arrested for shoplifting, and she loses her dog Lucy while being held in jail. Like Rosetta, she puts a brave face on these misfortunes, though finally breaks down in the safety of a quick-stop restroom after being spooked by a tramp in her makeshift camp in the woods.
The townspeople Wendy encounters are reasonably helpful, but no one exactly steps in to “save” her – in this realistic film, Wendy mostly just waits to get word of her car and her dog. The camera is a quiet presence, with leisurely-held shots giving us plenty of time to feel the atmosphere and take in symbolic details: the graffiti word “GONER,” the man reading Ken Kesey, the cartoon doughnut on the doughnut shop where Wendy hangs out, the obsessively detailed flower doodles in her travel notebook. Although the camera doesn’t focus on the protagonist’s body as closely as it did in Rosetta, Wendy is still in most of the shots, whether as a small figure in a landscape, as feet walking, or as just her top half while throwing a stick several times for her dog. The only music is a periodic humming – a broken, wordless, and vaguely melodic theme song. At the end of the film, the camera finally departs from Wendy completely, and we see just her viewpoint: a series of trees going by from the freight car door opening.
More haunting and less visceral than either Crows or Rosetta, this film still mines much of the same territory. Made in a year of economic collapse, its character personifies the fallout – deftly illustrating how easily one or two misfortunes can cause a downward spiral.
In Agnes Varda’s 1985 multi-award-winning film Vagabond, or Sans Toit ni Loi (“Without Roof nor Law”), we see a girl who is also on the road – permanently. We learn that Mona was a voc-tec grad who once worked as a secretary but “didn’t like it,” and although she claims not to have chosen the life of the road, she also claims to prefer the independence it offers her. We are not privy to much information about Mona’s background that could have given her cause for such a course. But her street smarts, self-sufficiency, and aggressiveness almost make her seem like some sort of future version of Rosetta. Being on the road without family or plan also brings out more of the kind of wild spirit we see from the “Crow.” Mona likes music, pot, dogs, and wordplay, and amuses herself with who and what she finds, taking what she likes and giving only what she cares to (except when she gets raped), and the lovely Sandrine Bonnaire delivers a stunning performance – her naturalistic body language and expressions reflecting the moment by moment responses of such a character. But bad luck propels Mona into a much darker down and out descent than the kind hinted at in Wendy and Lucy.
Vagabond is structured as a pseudo-documentary, alternating short sequential glimpses of the last months of Mona’s journey with Varda herself interviewing various characters who knew her. The settings run the gamut of town, countryside, various interiors, and transient grounds. It’s winter — there are no sunlit shots and many of the unpopulated shots, often accompanied by haunting music, simply show the stark kinds of places unnoticed by anyone but a transient for whom they are potential camps. The most telling close-up motif has more to do with the condition, juxtapositions and associations of hands. We see the male garage worker who has mixed feelings about Mona but sleeps with her anyway as he quickly tries to cover up her accusation that he has dirty hands, the clean hands of the female college professor on the table next to Mona’s dirty ones, and finally the matching dirty hands of Mona and Assouna, the vineyard worker who tries to help her out.
Many road movies show a character’s temporary departure from or journey towards something – the arc of the experience somehow “building character.” But a character that is perpetually on the road makes a different kind of statement. Is this character braver, freer, and less compromising, or weaker, lazier, more cynical, and more desperate? The characters who are intermittently interviewed about Mona all have their own perceptions – in many cases revealing more about who they are then who she is. A middle-aged woman asserts that Mona “has character,” “knows what she wants,” and will never be “stuck for life” with “the wrong man.” Yolande, a maid who befriends Mona, is envious of Mona’s “gentle” relationship with her fellow drifter partner, but this partner perceives her as a user. A mother asks, “Does she have a mother to feed her?” while her daughter proclaims, “But she’s free.” The hippie philosophy major turned goat herder who tries to offer Mona work and board states that “proving she’s useless” is “not wandering, but withering,” and the female college professor, in a moment of panic, is haunted by flashes of Mona as a kind of reproach.
In the end, perceptions don’t matter, because road travelers of all stripes must be tough and resourceful, and though Mona exhibits these qualities strongly enough when we first see her, as the winter progresses we see her begin to give up, escaping more and more into the consolations of sex and alcohol, provided all too readily by the new group of fellow travelers she has taken up with. She becomes less independent and self-protective – even after losing all her possessions in a fire and barely escaping unharmed, she doesn’t even bother fastening her boots, and is too disoriented to even move from the freezing greenhouse she has chosen to take shelter in. After she is finally drenched in wine by some vineyard revelers, her expression for the first time shows an awareness of her vulnerability, but unlike that of the “Crow,” Rosetta or Wendy, this awareness comes too late for even some sort of imagined positive outcome.
Does Mona’s story reflect weakness of character or merely overwhelming social pressure? This film does not choose to say. Like the other films discussed here, Vagabond presents a girl in medias res, follows her day-to-day life, and watches unflinchingly as this life takes her to a crisis point. Like Varda’s interviewees, perhaps our responses to all four of these heroines’ haunting and unignorable characters says more about us than it says about them. But if the intent of these films is to get us to see, feel, think, and possibly identify, then all four of them more than succeed.
Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.