Like The Beaches of Agnès, The Gleaners and I is a lightfooted meditation from an aging master so comfortable with her medium that her work feels like play. Hopscotching from one French town or agricultural center to the next, Agnès Varda leads us on a seriously joyful journey of discovery in The Gleaners and I, which winds up covering a lot of ground despite its apparently spontaneous structure.
Varda shot much of the film herself with a then-new compact digital video camera (the film was released in 2001), which she shows it off early on with typical enthusiasm. Her ultra-portable camera and skeleton crew (the list of credits is impressively small for such a big name) presumably helped her gain access to the many gleaners she interviews, but I bet it was her unfeigned interest that got them to open up the way they do. As Varda says in the film, she’s fascinated by gleaners because she is one, though she gathers “images, impressions” rather than furniture or food.
The Gleaners and I is part guided tour, teaching us about a world that’s nearly invisible to most who don’t live in it, but it never feels didactic. Most of the information is introduced seamlessly, like the way Varda lets a gleaner explain the difference between “gleaning” and “picking” soon after we’ve first heard the distinction and are beginning to wonder. (Both gather what’s left of a crop after the owner has harvested it, but gleaners pick things that grow on stalks or underground while pickers pick things from branches.) When there’s no way to work in a fact organically, Varda has fun with it, stationing a couple of bemused lawyers outdoors in their official robes, each holding a bound copy of the penal code, to address the legal questions she knows we will have. She cuts to the lawyers periodically as they answer her questions about the legalities of gleaning, one in a field talking about rural settings and one on a sidewalk addressing cities.
Varda accompanies gleaners as they work and talks to them about what they do and why. And while poverty is the biggest motivation, it’s not the only one. She talks to people who rely on the potatoes or apples they gather to supplement meager incomes, including a man who tells her he has not seen his kids in two years, since they live several hundred kilometers away and he can’t afford to travel. “I think of them every day,” he says with heartbreaking directness. She interviews a man who says he has gotten all his food from trash for the last 10 or 15 years, not because he can’t afford groceries (“I have a job, a salary, a social security number,” he says with a laugh), but because salvaging some of the tons of food that get wasted in his city every day is “a matter of ethics for me.” She finds the chef of a gourmet restaurant who gathers his own herbs because it’s the best form of quality control—and because he loves gleaning, which he learned as a child from his grandparents. She even finds young kids who make a game of gleaning.
Varda’s interviews sometimes lead to interesting tangents. Like one of the cats she keeps cutting to, she is easily distracted if something else catches her eye, but she always circles back to her main subject. She’s even happy when her car has to stop for a herd of sheep, interrupting her narrative to show the animals as they pass.
That aside about how she loves to be interrupted by animals is also key to Varda’s style, and to making this video essay feel so disarmingly direct. Rather than hide behind her camera or some pretense of objectivity, Varda keeps interjecting playful glimpses of herself and asides about what she’s thinking or feeling. She and coeditor Laurent Pineau often leave in her questions as she interviews her subjects, even preserving some of the pleasantries that begin or end an interview. That taste of unmediated reality helps make her journey seem unplanned and unscripted, a true journey of discovery.
Varda dedicates her film to the “energy” of the “anonymous” people she encountered in her journey, but what animates The Gleaners and I even more than is Varda’s own free-spirited, unpatronizing, and utterly unpretentious fascination with the world around her. By letting a parade of vivid individuals speak for themselves, she gives us a fresh look at a subject that could easily have felt stale or depressing. For an essay on the immorality of our consumer culture, The Gleaners and I is surprisingly lighthearted and hopeful, thanks to Varda’s genius for connecting with the communality and creativity of the human spirit.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.