A strange marriage of formal playfulness and intensely earnest Empathy Cinema storytelling, Agnes Varda’s 1985 film Vagabond gives us the feeling that we’re watching a beautiful plane tree being cut down because it has a disease that will eventually kill it. There is no suspense about the ending: the opening shot of a body in a ditch tells us it all ends badly. There are only the questions of How and Why, and What Does It All Mean?

Mona settles into one of the many homes she finds along the road.

My tree metaphor, as you know if you’ve seen the movie, is from the film itself.

We follow Mona — our abused, persecuted, neglected, and self-abused vagrant zigzagging her way around French territories that never show up on tourism postcards – through a variety of encounters with people who are either dismissive, abusive, or vaguely charitable people.

In one memorable sequence, she rides around with an agronomist who is studying diseased plane trees. The woman observes her with curiosity, almost entertained by this human wreckage who eagerly consumes any food or drink she’s given. She’s studying plane tree disease, she says, but she’s not seeking to cure it.

(It’s even more interesting how Varda emphasizes that the fungal disease killing the trees came over from America on shipping pallets and crates made of diseased wood — a rich metaphor in itself that could apply to Mona in a variety of ways. Are the corruptions of Western capitalism at work in what’s killing her?)

From French bakery specialities to rock-hard baguettes, Mona survives on the generosity of strangers.

Is the agronomist really interested in helping Mona? No, of course not. Few who encounter her really do want to save her, and those that do learn that it’s going to be much more difficult and costly than they thought.

Drawing extraordinary and unnervingly convincing work from actress Sandrine Bonnaire, Varda has sculpted — and I say sculpted rather than painted for how three-dimensional Mona becomes — a character failed by humankind at every turn, and that includes herself. Bonnaire is fearlessly committed to every harsh turn in this distinctive wanderer’s journey, creating a completely convincing character through terror, desperation, bitterness, and occasional glimmers of joy.

But she’s not the whole show: Ever ruggedly real supporting character is as distinctive as she is, many played by non-professional actors found by Varda in the places where the movie took her. Among this gallery are some characters who express not only pity for Mona and shame for how they fell short of saving her, but also some who express admiration — particularly women who envy her freedom.

A moment that reminded me of Proverbs 31:6: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress.”

As a big fan of Varda’s documentaries, I had no trouble recognizing her passions and improvisational sensibilities here. (I can’t help but wonder if she means for the sophisticated academic to be a self-effacing reference to herself, since she would, in 2000’s The Gleaners and I, speak with similar curiosity and fascination about a bunch of similarly beleaguered and desperate young people living on the street.)

Moments of fleeting grace shine out during Mona’s downward spiral.

But I was surprised at how, in spite of the formal inventiveness, this came to feel very preachy, like a long and repetitive re-write of the parable of the good Samaritan, in which even the fleeting flares of generosity in those who encounter Mona give way, person by person, to fear, impatience, or — in the most difficult scenes — exploitative impulses.

I will have to give this one time. Perhaps as I continue to discover the poetry in the seeming chaos, I will warm to what Varda has done here. But due to their overbearing agendas to Make Me Care, most films that aim to inspire empathy with this narrative of a human pinball (that is, a protagonist who crashes into one calamity after another until they stumble into a pit) end up… leaving me cold — no Vagabond pun intended.*

Mona enjoying what may be the closest thing to love she finds in her punishing journey.

*But I won’t say I wasn’t pleased by the pun when I stumbled onto it.