You may remember director Agnès Varda from her 1986 film, VAGABOND. But over the last five decades, the `grandmother of French New Wave' has completed 29 other works, most showing her affection, bemusement, outrage, and wide-ranging curiosity for humanity. Varda's most recent effort-the first filmed with a digital videocamera-focuses on gleaners, those who gather the spoils left after a harvest, as well as those who mine the trash. Some completely exist on the leavings; others turn them into art, exercise their ethics, or simply have fun. The director likens gleaning to her own profession-that of collecting images, stories, fragments of sound, light, and color. In this hybrid of documentary and reflection, Varda raises a number of philosophical questions. Has the bottom line replaced our concern with others' well-being, even on the most essential level of food? What happens to those who opt out of our consumerist society? And even, What constitutes--or reconstitutes--art? Along this road trip, she interviews plenty of French characters. We meet a man who has survived almost completely on trash for 15 years. Though he has a job and other trappings, for him it is `a matter of ethics.' Another, who holds a master's degree in biology, sells newspapers and lives in a homeless shelter, scavenges food from market, and spends his nights teaching African immigrants to read and write. Varda is an old hippie, and her sympathies clearly lie with such characters who choose to live off the grid. She takes our frenetically consuming society to task and suggests that learning how to live more simply is vital to our survival. At times we can almost visualize her clucking and wagging her finger-a tad heavy-handedly advancing her agenda. However, the sheer waste of 25 tons of food at a clip is legitimately something to cluck about. And it is her very willingness to make direct statements and NOT sit on the fence that Varda fans most enjoy, knowing that her indignation is deeply rooted in her love of humanity. The director interjects her playful humor as well-though it's subtle, French humor that differs widely from that of, say, Tom Green. Take the judge in full robes who stands in a cabbage field citing the legality of gleaning chapter and verse. Quirky and exuberant, Varda, 72, is at an age where she's more concerned with having fun with her craft than impressing anyone. With her handheld digital toy, she pans around her house and pauses to appreciate a patch of ceiling mold. When she later forgets to turn off her camera, she films `the dance of the lens cap.' One of the picture's undercurrents is the cycle of life-growth, harvest, decay. She often films her wrinkled hands and speaks directly about her aging process, suggesting that her own mortality is much on her mind. The gleaners pluck the fruits before their decay, as Varda lives life to the fullest, defying the inevitability of death. Toward the movie's end, she salvages a Lucite clock with no hands. As she films her face passing behind it, she notes, `A clock with no hands is my kind of thing.' If you'd be the first to grab a heart-shaped potato from the harvest, or make a pile of discarded dolls into a totem pole, THE GLEANERS is probably your kind of thing.
The Gleaners & I
The Gleaners & I
Varda films and interviews gleaners in France in all forms, from those picking fields after the harvest to those scouring the dumpsters of Paris.
October 12, 2020