In contemporary North America, female homelessness remains largely an invisible phenomenon. Out of sight, women are also proverbially out of mind, which silently suggests that economic and sociological constraints don’t affect women in the same radical manner as men; that women aren’t displaced, forced to relocate for work, or faced with precarious housing. Two films—with twenty years between them—that directly engage with these issues are Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985) and Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008). In both films, characters and institutions objectify the films’ protagonists (Mona and Wendy, respectively) in ways that range from unintentionally condescending to outright abusive. As young, homeless women, both Mona and Wendy struggle to obtain basic necessities and they find themselves marginalized at the intersection of gender inequality and poverty. Varda’s Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) has chosen to live as a vagrant while Reichardt’s titular character (played by Michelle Williams) longs for, and tries to find, a home. While similar in theme, the films provide divergent perspectives on the heterogeneity of gendered poverty and female experiences of homelessness.
Vagabond is interested in how its characters’ opinions are shaped by, and perpetually reify, the inescapable power structures in society, which assert that women should not be living on the road. In Wendy and Lucy, the protagonist is repeatedly marginalized by systems of institutional power. Security guards, grocery clerks, police officers, and dog-pound employees (Lucy being Wendy’s canine companion) all deem Wendy’s plight not quite dire enough to bend their rigid stipulations. Thus, where Vagabond explores attitudes and unconscious biases towards the homeless subject, Wendy and Lucy looks more closely at the lived experience and recurring obstacles of homelessness.
Varda’s film opens with a man’s discovery of Mona’s dead body, tempting the audience to view Mona as a mere, lifeless object. Flashing back to a time when Mona was still alive, the film then maps out the experiences that culminate in her death. These scenes are intercut with interviews of the people Mona meets throughout the film, and who dispassionately describe her as though they are being interrogated. Speaking directly to the camera, the effect of these testimonies is the conflation of the investigator with the viewer. The viewer’s own feelings of apathy and sympathy, as well as her biases towards the homeless subject, thereby undergo a similar process of scrutiny. The perspectives of these strangers paint a picture of the homeless female that is at once broad and contradictory, constructed from anecdotes and generalizations that are inherently problematic, some more blatantly than others. Men sexualize her, as though Mona’s only worth lies in her body; to them, she is an object rendered disposable by her status as a wanderer. As a mechanic in the film (Pierre Imbert) crassly puts it: “Female drifters, all alike: just loafers and men-chasers.”
Vagabond juxtaposes the mechanic’s perception of Mona as inactive object with that of a romantic male vagrant (Patrick Lepcynski), who opines that she used him. Mona shares her company with him in exchange for his radio and marijuana, but when their squatting house is raided and she hears him being attacked by the burglars, she flees. The film allows for a reading in which Mona’s actions aren’t merely flagrant opportunism, but stem from the precariousness of her social position and a developed skill at negotiating her environment. She sees an opportunity and takes it in order to obtain food, shelter or small luxuries—her loyalties remain fully to herself.
For the naïve caretaker (Yolande Moreau) who gets a quick glimpse of Mona and a young man snuggling, Mona represents an ideal image of young love that brims with possibilities. To him, the couple’s indifference to their livelihoods is a testament to the unending desire they must possess for each other. This caretaker, and later a female professor (Macha Méril), recognize something beautiful in Mona’s wayfaring. But their idealization is problematic, since Mona’s carefree behaviour bespeaks only one small facet of her personality and her often unromantic situation. The caretaker and the professor sublimate their fantasies of a life liberated from responsibility. Collectively, they view Mona more as an empty vessel, uninhibited and free to embody their own desires, rather than as an autonomous subject living and struggling in the world around her.
While Varda’s Mona is presented as both a unique individual and a composite figure of the female vagrant and her marginalization in society, Wendy’s struggle in Reichardt’s film is depicted as a singular experience. The prejudices Wendy faces are largely coded in institutional rhetoric and process, and male characters frequently enforce the rules of these systems. Whereas Mona tries to fit into new spaces when and where she can, Wendy continually brushes up against foreign spaces and objects that are cold and alienating by design: holding cells with only a place to sit, a machine that reduces her personhood to a fingerprint, a dog pound that requires an address and phone number for proper communication.
However, although Reichardt foregrounds this continual systemic discrimination, Wendy does not (for the most part) face the same interpersonal discrimination as Varda’s Mona. This is largely a result of Wendy’s “passable” appearance. In Vagabond, Mona’s tattered clothes and unwashed hair clearly mark her as a vagrant, while in Wendy and Lucy, Wendy’s daily hygiene routine and her possession of a car help her fit into society. Wendy’s “passing” calls attention to the multivalent experience of homelessness and varying degrees of destitution. A scene that encapsulates this tension is when Wendy strikes up a friendship with the security guard (Walter Dalton), and her appearance initially obfuscates the extent of her poverty. The guard slowly surmises that Wendy has little money, and witnesses her lose both her car and Lucy. At the end of the film, when he offers her financial assistance, he gives Wendy only a few dollars, not fully grasping the gravity of her need.
Wendy and Lucy illuminates the social dimension of a woman’s descent into homelessness, and it is especially articulate on the commensurate emotional tumult, as when Wendy confronts her inability to care for Lucy. The fence that separates Wendy from Lucy when she finds the dog at her new owner’s home is one of the most compelling images in the film, demarcating the comfort and security of a house from the realities of Wendy’s displacement.
Vagabond, on the other hand, sets a different tone: Mona has struggled for years in the precarity of gendered poverty, and has become adept at navigating the challenges of her social position. By showing the range of responses and strategies women undertake while being homeless, the films present markedly different accounts of female homelessness. Although in Reichardt’s film, Wendy attempts to negotiate her relatively new experience of poverty, in Vagabond, Mona is stone hard from years of abandonment, displacement and disillusionment. Yet neither woman is impervious to the cold.