Updated: May 21, 2019
2000, 82 Min., French, Budget: N/A
What is there to say about Agnès Varda’s “The Gleaners & I?” One is tempted to take the same approach with words as Varda did with her incredible documentary’s subjects -- let them do all the talking. Varda herself has stated that she quickly realized the goal shouldn’t be to say any one thing about “gleaning,” but to let the subjects in her film unveil the complexities, insights and implications of such an idea. She was correct in her instinct and her subjects didn’t disappoint. With a film like this, you can discuss the significance of such a famed filmmaker walking away from conventional movie-making techniques for a digital camcorder (and we will), but my main goal with this review is to communicate how endearing “The Gleaners & I” is, how beautiful and how, even now, it makes my heart heavy -- not with sadness, but with a melancholy fondness that comes from a deeper appreciation. We have this movie and how lucky are we?
For those of you who don’t know what “Gleaning” is (that included me up until I watched this film), a quick description: Gleaning is essentially scavenging. Back in the 1500s, it became French law that people had the right to glean leftovers from the season’s harvest. Wheat, apples, potatoes, grapes. Once the harvest was over, it was fair game for commoners to enter the fields and take what they could find. Varda treats us to a history lesson, but moreover reveals gleaning to be a French pastime that is still cherished by French culture even today. In fact, it is still on the books as a legal practice and is protected under the French constitution. We learn this from (hilarious) barristers dressed in full gowns as they stand in fields ripe for gleaning and read from thick law books. There are several rules: you can only glean between sunrise and sunset. You can only take so many pounds of this or that, but Varda comedicly reveals that no one is quite sure of these “rules,” nor does anyone enforce them (for the most part). The only real guideline that people tend to obey is the “after the harvest” stipulation. Farmers who own private land open up their bounty and let hundreds of people, from different walks of life, glean their property for leftovers deemed “unusable” or “unsellable,” but are still perfectly fine to eat. As I was watching this particular part of the film, I kept thinking to myself: how would this ever work in America? The short answer is, it probably wouldn’t. I can hear the news headlines now: “Vagrant thief caught stealing apples shot to death.” The French, as a generalization, and with few exceptions in this movie, seem to be humanistically concerned with the common good. And it was this insight into the French mentality that was most astounding to me.
Varda explores urban gleaning, as well -- people we’d usually interpret as “bums.” They’re revealed to be more generous than the word “scavenger” could ever imply. One man gleans broken refrigerators and television sets, repairing them for his less fortunate neighbors. Another man who sells magazines on the street, and who holds a master’s degree, gleans the leftovers of Parisian street markets and teaches Senegalese immigrants how to read and write. He receives no monetary compensation for this and at the time of the film, he’d been doing it every week night for six years. Varda was most impressed by this man, as was I. Of course, this isn’t to suggest the French are perfect, nor to say that gleaning is accepted everywhere. We head to wine country where some vineyards are closed off to the public and we visit a small town where some rebellious teens are prosecuted for “destruction of property” after they tipped over a dumpster belonging to a local supermarket. The owner of the market poured bleach over his discarded stock, making it impossible to glean. The teens didn’t take kindly to this hostile act -- in their eyes a betrayal of the spirit of France.
We meet another man who, admittedly, seems to be a few eggs short of a carton. He is known around his small town for always wearing black rubber boots. He claims they’re functional. Fine. This man also claims to hold down a job and receive a salary, and yet, he hasn’t eaten anything that hasn’t come out of the garbage in over ten years. This man is a gleaning activist, disgusted with how much we waste. By this point in the documentary, we have enough information to agree with him to a certain extent. I started thinking about how much I personally waste, guilty of throwing things away as they near their estimated “expiration” date. He keeps it simple: “Smell it. If it smells bad, don’t eat it.” According to him, he is in great health and has never become sick from dumpster diving. Boots or no, his “footprint” is smaller than mine.
Early in the film Ms. Varda visits a potato farm where we learn that literal tons of potatoes are discarded because they’re considered too big or too small. High-end French restaurants only want potatoes of a certain caliber -- weight, size, shape. This is where one of the film’s most charming and transcending traits reveals itself. Varda, now armed with only a primitive digital camera, reaches down into the dirt in a first-person POV shot and gleans large, misshapen potatoes that look like hearts. This is the kind of “poetry” Varda lives for and there’s a thrill that comes with watching her catch a moment like this on tape. While most the gleaners take sacks of potatoes (some reaching 700 pounds) that they plan to eat, Varda herself snags several of these heart-shaped spuds for her own personal collection of misfit odds and ends. A deeper theme is on the horizon...
We meet a handful of other interesting gleaners. The ones that come to mind glean for totally different reasons. One man is an alcoholic who lost his job as a truck driver when he was breathalyzed. Losing his wife and children soon followed. Now he lives amongst gypsies in a ironically immobile home on wheels with a fellow drunkard. They each estimate that they put a case of beer away per day. Sometimes up to 36 cans -- I assumed purchased with what little money is provided from the French government? Gleaning is the only way this man can get a meal. Varda finds him on the potato field, but he takes her on one of his expeditions. In a dumpster, they find fresh, packaged (and sealed) fish two days away from its expiration date. Perhaps something that would go for sixty euros a plate in the next gleaner’s restaurant. That’s right, we meet a young chef who is the youngest culinary expert to receive two Michelin Stars. He gleans his ingredients from local fields. Fruits to make delicious jams, “nothing can go to waste!” he says. To him, it’s a form of recycling. He tells Varda’s digital camera that his grandparents taught him to glean as a child, and essentially, it’s a way of upholding a tradition. He also mentions it’s how he knows exactly where his ingredients come from, not relying on those pesky Italians to “decide” if it’s fresh.
As this incredibly informative, enlightening documentary is unfolding, there’s something else happening. Varda herself, the eccentric, pioneering filmmaker, is exploring her own connection to gleaning. She astutely realizes that she is “gleaning the gleaners” in order to make her film, rummaging around in the country where she became famous as the only female film director of the French New Wave. It’s the country she called home for many years with her husband -- the iconic French director Jacques Demy -- and she is gleaning the stories of her fellow countrymen, finding the poetic nuance with her newly discovered low-fi equipment that strips away the artifice of filmmaking. As she was discovering the power of this new tool and using it to peel back the layers of her subjects, the film strangely, yet inevitably, becomes intimate and confessional. Almost as if these very instruments carry with them a narcissism. The smaller a camera gets, the more likely we are to turn it around on ourselves... Varda spends time combing the graying hair atop her head, showing her wrinkled hands in close-up. “I’m getting close to the end” she muses at the sight of her weathered skin. I’ve read that she had to record these portions of the film privately because they were just too personal, too revealing. As a viewer, you feel as though you’re overhearing a confession. You’re moved, excited and a little uncomfortable. These days we take this kind of honesty and fearlessness for granted, because everyone with a cell phone records the minutia of their daily lives and there is no longer such a thing as privacy. I was forced to place the film in a time and context. Can you imagine how revolutionary this felt in 2000, if not indulgent? But Varda’s irrepressible thirst for life and “welcoming round face” keeps us transfixed, as none of this is to suggest that she isn’t every bit as boundlessly youthful as she always was. Curious as the cats that lounge around her house, both alive and part of her (partially gleaned) decor.
Digital technology brings out the kid in her, allowing a freedom that the filmmakers of her generation never knew, but most endearingly, a playfulness most “serious” directors would avoid in fear of appearing amateurish. Varda plays a game with passing semi-trucks -- using the camera’s perspective as her own, she cups her hands around the trucks and “catches” them. At one point, she forgets to turn the camera off and we’re treated to a short sequence of a lens cap fluttering and dangling wildly about in the wind. Instead of discarding this mistake, Varda gleans it -- setting the whole sequence to jovial jazz music. These are the kinds of pleasant surprises a movie like this can give to us. Varda named it “The Dance of the Lens Cap.” By this point, if you’re not in love with this film, you are simply not in sympathy with it, and my guess is it’s because you haven’t turned yourself over to it and let it in. There are some fields open to gleaners and others with locked fenses.
The final word on this film -- a film I grow fonder and fonder of with each additional line I write -- is its relationship with art. Varda opens on a famous painting inside the Musee d’Orsay simply called “The Gleaners.” I was fortunate enough to see it in person the last time I was in Paris, but I had yet to learn of its significance. Varda herself poses with a stock of wheat over her shoulder. Her transformation has begun, earning the “I” in her film’s title. The movie ends, again, with a painting of Gleaners. This time the piece of art had to be unearthed from the basement of an obscure gallery in a smaller town. There’s a message there, but Ms. Varda wouldn’t dare tell us what it is. Agnès Varda died on March 29th, 2019 in Paris at the age of 90.