Lost in the Movies: The Gleaners & I

The Gleaners & I

#59 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
"Again one hand filming the other hand, and more trucks. I'd like to capture them. To retain things passing? No, just to play."
In Agnes Varda's documentary The Gleaners & I (a more literal translation from the French would be "The Gleaners & The Gleaner", or even "Gleaneress") play, investigation, and contemplation are all intricately yet loosely wound together - each element distinct yet forming an unpretentiously ambitious whole, much like the found-object artpieces Varda highlights throughout. Her subject, as you might have gathered (no pun intended), is gleaning: in all its forms. We are introduced to the classical gleaners, the peasant women who would follow the harvest by crouching and stooping through the fields, rummaging for leftovers once the more illustrious agricultural bounty was carried off. We see such gleaners in famous French paintings, and meet one or two who reminisce only - it seems that this more traditional form of gleaning has fallen by the wayside: mechanized reaping has become too precise and so few crops are left behind these days. This we learn in the first five minutes of the 90-minute film; what follows is an eager, inquisitive investigation of gleaning in all its latter-day manifestations...

We travel back and forth across France "capturing" passing trucks; shuffle through potato wastelands alongside single mothers and homeless alcoholics; observe running legal commentaries offered by robed justices standing incongruously in vineyards and in trash heaps. We see gleaners in vineyards, along the seashore, on city streets; meet various artists who incorporate abandoned junk into their own work; visit a children's museum which makes trash shiny and colorful. Finally we discover a post-graduate gleaner who picks through garbage to find food, his eccentricity giving way to erudite pedagogy when it's revealed that he teaches French to Senegalese immigrants, free of charge, of his own volition. Those are the gleaners - what of "I" (or as the original title puts it, the gleaner - singular)? She's Varda, of course, perpetually playing peekaboo with her own camera, narrating with a mixture of carefree bravado, pensive reflection, and endless fascination. Much, if not most, of what we see is filmed by her, so even when we aren't hearing or seeing her, she's present - the video filters her vision and consciousness, which together filter the outside world for us.

The lo-fi visuals are at once liberating and relatively nondescript - they do not carry the punch of celluloid, the automatic "magic", but they do convey a quiet, gentle charm, a looseness that is more observational and in some ways more sensitive than traditional filmmaking allows. This highlights the distinction between what is captured and how Varda captures it (the raw material of reality and the way she selects, composes, edits, comments upon, and interacts with what we see). This formal component provides a nice rhyme for the film's thematic material, in which utilitarian consumer goods are given aesthetic rebirth, waste is turned into food, and trash becomes personalized and beautiful. The aesthetic becomes practical, the practical becomes aesthetic, and the useless finds its uses - or rather has them found for it. Right away, the movie presents an awareness of beauty's ambiguity, opening not just with footage of gleaners at work, but gleaners glamorized, in the paintings of Millet and Breton. (Following a grim episode focusing on the dire poverty of some gleaners, there's a moment of reflection in Burgundy for Van der Weyden's "The Last Judgement", and briefly the film is haunted by the pitiable writhing of the damned.)

In presenting those works of art that commemorate gleaning, Varda seems aware that such paintings tend to romanticize what can be a very hard way of living - and yet to deny the beauty of these paintings would be absurd, and self-defeating. Varda's own filmmaking style, an engaging combination of doc and home movie, strikes an ongoing, fragile balance between respect for those she is filming and an almost naive sense of wonder; in both cases, curiosity serves her, and us, best. We draw our own conclusions without feeling that she has concealed her own point of view from us - or, at the same time, that her own point of view is necessarily any more fixed than our own. At times metatextual (but very, very playfully so), the movie - shot on a video camera at the turn-of-the-millennium - seems a synthesis of various documentary traditions, stretching all the way back to Etienne-Jules Marey, whose "chronophotography" was a forerunner of the cinema. (Marey's great grandson owns a vineyard which Varda visits, examining both his sympathetic treatment of gleaners and curation of a museum honoring his ancestor.)

Indeed, Varda has "gleaned" all the documentary techniques and approaches of the past hundred years: the personal diary, the man-on-the-street interview, the verite observation, the didactic montage, the found footage, the expert fact-finding interview - and all viewpoints are explored, political, personal, social, aesthetic alike. And what frames all of this borrowing, what gives it its own life, is Varda's use of the video camera - the way she filters all these devices through the humble yet infinitely resonant context of home moviemaking. (She even includes an accidentally-filmed "dance of the lens cap"; while some find such indulgence bizarre and laughable, many of us will find it charming, particularly those who recognize the complex framework within which such proudly amateurish moments are allowed to flourish.) To the extent the film has a "message" - generally it's more subtle and rich than that - it is an encouragement of this sort of personal gleaning; The Gleaners & I spurs us on to open our eyes and see the potential of society's refuse, the spiritual in the material, even as we are discouraged from ignoring the darker undertones of prettified consciousness. By the end of the film, encouraged by Varda's own highly individual, yet "open" perspective, that "I" in the title could be us as well.

Previous film: L'Enfant
Next film: The Lives of Others

(originally linked on The Sun's Not Yellow)

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