By Andrew Harwood
What makes a film? A question that not only begs the simplest of answers, but also the most enduring conversations, is our focus for this week’s “Cinephilia” blog.
Is it the stars? The music? The script? The director? Yes, of course. But more than all that, editing is by far the most quintessential piece of a film, given that an editor is responsible for piecing together a film however they desire.
Editing exists in two forms: continuity and disjunctive editing. Continuity editing, as it may seem, is your typical and straightforward “Hollywood” style of editing, composed of properly filmed sequences and cuts on action. Disjunctive editing, on the other hand, is everything but normal, given how the style became prominent in experimental films.
At the forefront for this week is an experimental film that exhibits inviting yet jarring editing, as well as a precious story on independence: Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond.”
Released in 1985, “Vagabond” tells the story of Mona, a young girl who strives for complete independence from her surroundings, thus finding herself on the road and living off the land. Intercut with the pseudo-documentary-like interviews of the people she comes across, Mona’s story remains a rather intriguing mystery, much more so when she eventually succumbs to death.
What makes this film unique is its editing style, known as elliptical editing. This is when a filmmaker presents an overarching narrative but condenses it by intentionally cutting out certain parts of the story. Varda’s use of elliptical editing directly correlates to the underlying mystery that is Mona’s life, given how we are presented with only certain elements of her journey as well as minimal background context.
As much as this can be frustrating and a nuisance, it makes an incredible amount of sense. Though a film about a young girl’s travels, “Vagabond” isn’t truly about Mona, but rather the allure of escape and independence. So, it seems reasonable we do not get more of an understanding of Mona’s character, because through the editing Varda encourages us to watch her journey, her attempt at an escape from organized society.
Another major aspect of “Vagabond” is solitude — that is, the purposeful seclusion and reclusive state Mona puts herself in during the film. Placed forth by Varda’s editing style, solitude is further enhanced by the naturalistic mise-en-scène of the film. Simply put, naturalistic mise-en-scène is in reference to the setting of the film accurately representing reality.
Given that Varda filmed on location in the French wine country, the naturalist aspect of the film was a pre-established factor. But, going back to solitude, the naturalistic mise-en-scène of this film heightens Mona’s solitude by simply portraying her surrounded by nothing but abandoned wintry landscape.
Again, the film sets out to tell a story of independence and detachment from society, all the while featuring Mona’s extensive bouts of solitude. Whether it’s camping in the woods, walking across a vast vineyard or awaking in a graveyard in the pouring rain, the place of naturalistic mise-en-scene further exhibits Mona’s physical state of reclusion by emphasizing the lack of company and abundance of nothing.
But, venturing back to editing, a component that serves as the glue of a film, it’s important to notice just how differently a film can be told if it were edited differently. With “Vagabond,” a continuity editing style depletes the mystery surrounding Mona, further diminishing the solitude seen on screen as well as the feelings of reclusion. Though simple, editing beholds power that is more than the cut.
A film that is definitely not for everyone, especially those easily triggered by slow cinema and disjunctive editing, “Vagabond” nevertheless excels in portraying the journey of a young woman through a rather daring lens. Though eventually tragic, this film reappoints Varda’s dominance in French New Wave and compliments her heritage beautifully.