The Gleaners and I

Gleaning -- the individual right to collect what is left on the ground when the harvest is finished -- is a freedom protected under French constitutional law. Everyone Agnès Varda speaks with in her new documentary The Gleaners and I seems to know this to be true. Yet no one is in agreement as to what the laws governing the practice actually are.

Varda is interested in modern gleaners as descendants of the tradition made so figuratively vivid in the famous paintings by Millet and Van Gogh. Yet true to her fashion, Varda is interested in discovering so much more than the literal meaning of things. Her travels in the countryside introduce her to gleaners who see the practice as a continuance of the "old ways," many who supplement their lives with the edible waste of others, and some who just like to gather the freshest produce and herbs they can possibly find. Varda's explorations take her to urban centers as well, where she sees the abundance of street refuse as part of the inorganic harvest to be gleaned by artful scavengers, the homeless, and political dissidents who decry the wastefulness of our mass consumption.

Varda, who was 72 years old when she made this film in 2000, masterfully uses this documentary as a mode of personal essay, for the filmmaker is a something of a gleaner as well, in that she gathers society's detritus as the raw material for her celluloid repast. Her deft integration of self within this film is stunning to behold, as when she discovers a heart-shaped potato in an otherwise-anonymous pile, or when she films her aging hand in close-up in order to document a decay that she is otherwise able to ignore.

Shots such as these were made possible by Varda's digital camera, a technology the longtime filmmaker embraces wholeheartedly. Often called the "mother of the French New Wave," Varda has been making films since the mid-Fifties, before the New Wave broke, and was the only woman director to be counted among the movement's numbers. Her early interests in photography and art history are also reflected in The Gleaners and I, as are the personal traditions she established with the idiosyncratic documentaries she has made intermittently throughout her career as a filmmaker known for her experiments with narrative form. The Gleaners and I shows Varda in full flower, ever reaping what she has sown.

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