November 2, 2001

Cornell Cinema: The Gleaners And I

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The film, The Gleaners and I, is a movie which documents various peoples throughout France whose lives are dedicated to salvaging. Some, like the poor and homeless, salvage thrown-out food because they can’t afford to buy it, others collect trash because it serves a decorative purpose in their lives, and a few make art out of it. Like the people she films, Agnes Varda knows how cinema saves. In the process, Gleaners records on video her own quest to understand Varda’s fellow countrymen and herself, an old woman who is still unsure of her role as an esteemed and elderly filmmaker.

Revered as a fascinating filmmaker since before France’s New Wave, Varda has established her free-flowing, narrative work as a documentarian. Films such as Cleo from 5 to 7, shot in real time about a singer, demonstrated that audiences were willing to watch whatever Varda served up because of her lyrical technique. Decades later in The Gleaners and I, Varda can still weave a wonderful tale through carefree DV cinematography and nonchalent narration.

The film was provoked by an 1857 Millet painting of gleaners in the fields, and then continues to examine how people scavenge in contemporary society. Gleaners by definition are the people who scavenge the leftovers of grain, fruit, or vegetable after the harvesting season. Varda not only captures on film the people who go to the fields after potato, apple, and wine harvests but also those who look for day-old bread discarded from bakeries and the produce left on the ground at outdoor markets. Instead of regarding these gleaners with dismay, Varda is intrigued, seeming to agree with some of her subjects that there is something inately lovely in the act of searching for passed-over goods, even something romantic in the act of stooping.

In searching for the reason why people have lived on other’s waste for hundreds of years, Varda is perhaps still trying to find her own authorial identity through the documentary. It seems that in provoking her subjects, she is trying to find out why she finds filmmaking so fascinating. At times goofy, Varda plays with the easy effects of digital video, making close-ups of her wrinkled hands and enjoying the way video captures the scenery that passes in a speedy automobile. Varda’s way of life seems quite abstract compared with the simplicity of the life of the gleaners; they survive by a hand-to-mouth existence, while her own survival seems to depend on art as she cherishes the picturesque nature of farmers stooping in the fields and uncovering what others have left behind.

Varda notes that the film’s ending scenes are the most poignant, and one has to agree. She briefly delves into the story of a man she found eating vegetables left on the street. He turns out to have a master’s in biology and teaches French to the illiterate in his housing project. Part of his varied life is recycling what others take for granted. He exemplifies the film’s ideology: each individual has the opportunity to take maximum advantage of every resource, that it is just as easy to save and collect the overlooked as it is to throw away.

Archived article by Diana Lind