v. gleaned, glean·ing, gleans
1. To gather (grain) left behind by reapers.
2. To collect bit by bit.
Gleaning a Grand Dame of Cinema
It might be hard to imagine now, but Agnès Varda has not always been the revered filmmaker she is now. In the forty years leading up to The Gleaners and I, Varda was generally considered a talented but secondary figure of the French New Wave. Varda was mentioned only twice in the 372 pages that make up James Monaco’s pioneering study The New Wave, which is indicative of the general marginalization of Varda’s work in many historical accounts. Her work was hard to get a handle on or neatly categorize, and occasional high-profile successes (1962’s Cleo from 5 to 7, 1985’s Vagabond) often came off as anomalies in a career primarily devoted to idiosyncratic, highly personal projects.
This all changed with The Gleaners and I. Its international success sparked a reexamining of Varda’s career and work and, by the time the autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès was released eight years later, her reputation as a beloved “grand dame of cinema” was undisputed. Some forty-five years after her debut feature as a precocious, 26 year old first-time director, Agnès Varda was finally recognized as a cinematic treasure, a master of the medium.
A Movie Like an Artist’s Gallery
In many respects, The Gleaners and I is a fitting culmination of the projects, ideas and experiments Varda committed herself to over the course of her career. If, as Amy Taubin has astutely pointed out, Varda’s work can be viewed as “portraits of people and places,” then The Gleaners and I serves as a kind of a gallery exhibit of precisely observed miniatures and cameo portraits (which is unsurprising considering Varda’s more recent focus on installation work). After setting out to discover whether or not the historical act of gleaning for food in fields still occurs in contemporary France, Varda comes into contact with a fascinating array of people, many who warrant entire documentaries of their own. She manages to weave together a historical and sociological examination that at once seems sweeping in scope and minute in its gaze. And along the way she almost inadvertently crafts another portrait: a revealing, intimate self-portrait. There is definitely a reason why there is an “I” in the title alongside the gleaners.
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The Cinematic Gleaner
Drawing a parallel between the gleaning process and her own filmmaking methods, Varda almost singlehandedly manages to alter the way that her films are discussed and analyzed. By characterizing her filmmaking as a form of gleaning, she captures the spirit of chance and the unexpected that informs the structure of not only this film, but nearly all of her films. Varda is the first to admit that this comparison can only be stretched so far – filmmaking is not just a matter of passively accumulating but also actively transforming – but it is a metaphor that remains not only irresistibly evocative but unavoidably appropriate.
There are moments when The Gleaners and I can come off as a bundle of randomly assembled tangents and digressions, and there are times when the central concept of “gleaning” seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. But somehow the film always manages to circle back at the last moment, and Varda accomplishes this by subtly shifting the emphasis of the film from the conceptual to something much more personal: herself.
The figure of Agnès Varda becomes not only an impetus for the film, but the site in which it always returns to for coherence and unification. Though Varda seems to have a limitless amount of fascinating footage at her disposal, some of the most resonant sequences are the ones where she quietly turns her camera on herself. At one point she reveals the bald spots in her hair, and in another she lingers on her hands, now shriveled with age and covered with spots. To characterize the film as a meditation on mortality is perhaps to exaggerate, but it is a reality that haunts the edges of the entire film.
The Gleaners and I is careful not to wear its (potentially radical) political dimension on its sleeve. Not only does it confront the viewer with figures and situations not typically glimpsed in films, it deals with larger political and social topics such as reusability, sustainability, conservation and capitalistic excess that at the turn of the 21st century were just beginning to gain a foothold in the larger public consciousness.
As such, The Gleaners and I has managed to develop a much wider audience than it might have otherwise. Google the film and along with the media outlets, film sites and personal blogs that one would expect to cover the film, reviews are also listed in more unconventional spaces such as treehugging.com and a site devoted to living off the public services grid.
What prevents The Gleaners and I from ever feeling polemical or didactic, however, is that Varda scrupulously maintains a stance of curiosity and is more interested in observation than in drawing conclusions or passing judgement.
It’s About Art (and How It Can’t Be Separated from Life)
The Gleaners and I can be considered a sociological and ecological examination, but it is just as much an exploration of art. At the beginning of the film Varda describes how the Natural Realist paintings of female gleaners by Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet first sparked her interest in the subject. And once she started looking, she realized that these iconic images were everywhere, showing up in many advertisements and printed upon everyday objects. In one particularly amusing sequence, she stumbles upon a rather crudely painted amateur painting in an antique emporium (she promptly purchases it and gives it pride of place on a wall in her home, yet another example of her finding value and worth in unexpected forms).
Varda also becomes interested in the reciprocal relationship between art and life: the Breton and Millet paintings were drawn from actual positions and gestures of gleaners hard at work in the wheat fields. Varda notices how these same gestures keep repeating over and over in her own footage. Which can said to precede the other? And should we attempt to unknot this twisty relationship at all?
It’s About Cinema
Varda has the amazing ability to stumble upon situations that can only be described as serendipitous. One of these situations is when Varda interviews the only vineyard owner she can find who specifically allows gleaners access to his fields. The kindly gentlemen turns out of be no less than a descendant of Étienne-Jules Marey, whose experiments in photographing animals and humans in motion is considered a major precursor to modern cinema. Varda is allowed access to the museum dedicated to Marey’s work situated on the family estate and she delights in panning over Marey’s dynamic studies. At this moment, The Gleaners and I is not only a reflection of how gleaning has mutated and transformed since the 19th century, but also the ways in which filmmaking itself has developed and changed during the exact same period of time. And when it comes down to it, how big is the leap between Marey and Varda’s dedication to observing the body moving and interacting within its environment?
The film is never guffaw-out-loud kind of funny, but it seems impossible to watch this film without an affectionate, lopsided grin on one’s face. Varda subtly inserts countless visual and verbal jokes and puns throughout the film, but most of the film’s wry humor comes from Varda herself. Whether it is the disarming manner in which she interacts with the individuals she approaches and interviews, the uninhibited gusto she exudes for her subject, or just the sheer audacity she has in presenting what seems like extraneous material, Varda manages to leaven her serious and potentially weighty subjects with an unflagging sense of humor. In one celebrated sequence, she “catches” passing freighter trains in her hand from her car window. In another, she sets some jerky footage captured when she forgot to turn off her camera to a jaunty jazz tune, christening it “Dance of the Lens Cap.”
Public response to the film was so passionate that two years later Varda made an hour-long sequel to the film titled The Gleaners and I… Two Years Later. She begins that film by photographing with amazement the stacks of letters and packages she has received in response to the film. Many, it turns out, contain personal anecdotes and heartfelt stories related to the act of gleaning. This inspires Varda to not only follow up with some of the more memorable individuals she encountered in The Gleaners and I, but also to meet some of the letter writers and interview them. And with each return home, it seems several new letters are waiting for her in her mailbox. What stories, experiences, adventures might they contain? It begins to feel like a project that could expand indefinitely; one begins to wish that it would.
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Jesse Ataide is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University. He shares his thoughts on film on his bl0g Memories of the Future.
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