Directed by Agnès Varda
On desolate farm fields under a gray sky, people of all ages congregate to pick and scavenge potatoes. The farmers have already harvested the ground’s yield of tubers, snatching the biggest, healthiest, and ripest of the crop. Now that the harvest is complete, old men, young women, and little children pick through the deserted scars left on the ground by ploughs and tractors. They raid trash heaps of potatoes deemed inferior and left to rot. Some sing songs while others work in solitary silence, carefully gathering the table scraps of agriculture. From these poor pickings come a method of survival and a lifestyle that has existed for several hundred years in France. It is known as “gleaning,” which officially means the collection of leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been officially harvested. But to Agnès Varda, widely considered to be the grandmother of the French New Wave, one doesn’t have to work in the fields to be considered a gleaner. In her transcendent documentary The Gleaners and I, Varda dissects French society, delving into the world of France’s disenfranchised to uncover a veritable universe of modern-day gleaners.
Inspired by François Millet's famous painting Les Graneuses, Varda became fascinated with the activity and sought out their modern contemporaries. Armed with a small crew wielding handheld cameras, Varda explored the dregs of French society: drifters, gypsies, homeless junkies, and street urchins. She finds a thriving society based on different kinds of gleaning. In the countryside, gleaners sort through abandoned crops. In the city, urban gleaners search through dumpsters and garbage cans, discovering massive payloads of fruit, vegetables, and raw meat. One gleaner jokes that people freak out if their groceries are a day past the expiration date, resulting in them throwing away entire containers of perfectly edible foodstuffs. Peeling back the lid on a container of discarded yogurt, he laughs and says that one can smell whether or not something has gone rotten or sour.
But most curious of all are the well-to-do subjects that Varda encounters gleaning the countryside and city streets. We meet the youngest French chef in history to be awarded two Michelin stars picking through abandoned orchards and fields, commenting that gleaning allows him to “know where his food comes from.” Besides, he casually mentions, overripe fruit makes the best jam and preserves. And then there is a former graduate student who proudly claims that he has lived off nothing but garbage for over ten years. The man is by no means poor. In fact, he professes to owning insurance and a social security number in addition to a job teaching immigrants French. So why does he glean? Growing suddenly serious, he answers that it is a form of protest against a society that throws away so much food despite such widespread hunger. For him, to glean is to seek social justice and economic justice. Plus, he smiles, ever since he started gleaning, he has never gotten sick.
But Varda argues that gleaning does not have to be strictly limited to foodstuffs. She interviews artists who create exhibits of art out of bits and pieces of trash that they have gathered from the garbage. She watches with curiosity as men smash abandoned television sets in order to collect the precious copper wiring. Varda goes even farther in her expanded definition of gleaning by exhibiting a series of souvenirs that she acquired in a recent trip to Japan. Notice how she doesn’t claim to have bought them. In fact, she “gleaned” them. This begs the question of whether or not the commercialization of world culture has led to its devaluation. After all, in the same department store where she got Japanese knick-knacks, she purchased small reprints of Rembrandt. If one doesn’t have to go to Europe to acquire a Rembrandt, is there anything distinctly European about it anymore? And if not, does it have any value beyond being a pretty thing to look at?
It may seem like I am really stretching to discover some kind of obtuse meaning or interpretation behind Varda’s film. But the truth is that she has constructed her film in such a way that it is impossible to not ask these questions. She mixes the film with philosophical insights, social commentary, political (albeit never explicitly proscribed) overtones, and glances into her own private life. Many of the shots and sequences seem to be there purely due to Varda’s sense of whimsy. These include a curious instance where Varda carried her personal camera around having forgotten to turn it off. As a result, the lens cap swings freely through the frame of the film. Instead of discarding the footage, Varda regards it with humor, proudly pronouncing it as the “dance of the lens cap.” Other shots show scenes of Varda traveling from location to location, filming passing trucks, herds of animals, and in-climate weather. Some might see this as vanity on Varda’s part. But slowly it becomes apparent that Varda herself is engaged in a form of cinematic gleaning.
Consider for a moment to role of the filmmaker. A filmmaker must shoot reels and reels of raw footage and then carefully assemble the best shots into a finished product, leaving behind the extra lengths of film. Instead of throwing away unnecessary or trivial footage, Varda seizes upon it and fills her film with the refuse of the cutting room floor. As a result, the film becomes part documentary, part travelogue, and part personal essay on Varda herself. In doing so, she equates the role of the filmmaker with the role of the gleaner: to pick through scraps in order to find that which must sustain them.
Other critics and reviewers would argue that The Gleaners and I is a political film. I would agree that while the film is indeed political, it never quite explains what it is trying to argue. Scenes of waste (including footage of dead birds from an oil spill) are mixed with tragic statistics about how much food is thrown away by French society. But Varda never seems to be trying to communicate any kind of political thesis. The film, and the act of gleaning, is by its very nature political as it speaks to subjects concerning legal terms of ownership and vagrancy. Varda speaks to lawyers and judges who describe France’s simultaneously archaic and modern laws concerning gleaning and whether or not it is considered legal. After all, the act of gleaning is where people harvest what is rightfully other people’s property. Do the owners forfeit that property by refusing to collect it? And if that is so, does the public have a right to it? Varda provides few answers.
But again, the politics are not the main focus of the film. The gleaners are the main subject. The nation of France is the main subject. The nature of the filmmaker is the main subject. And finally, Varda is the main subject. There are other essays you can read that carefully explain why The Gleaners and I is an economic and political protest piece. But this essay is written by a man who believes that political subjects can be covered objectively. Varda chooses no side in her film. She is too busy watching the gleaners. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in these itinerant scavengers. Maybe she was captivated by the kindred spirits that she met out in the countryside and in the city. Whatever the case, Varda is content to look, watch, and most importantly, film, this incredible aspect of French life.