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Vague Visages on Varda’s 88th: ‘The Gleaners & I’ (Agnès Varda, 2000)

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The Gleaners & I was my first Agnès Varda film and its greatest success may be the inspiration that followed for the rest of her filmography. Short and sweet, light and poignant, the documentary whets and sates its audience’s cinematic appetite while Varda herself becomes a Shakespearean Cleopatra:

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies”

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The title is defined almost immediately, opening with the consultation of multiple dictionary entries, and redefined over the course of the film. “Gleaning,” we learn, has historically referred to groups of farming women that gathered the missed crop after the harvest. They leaned humble to the earth, bonding in labor, their impoverished effort most romantically captured in realist oil paintings. With the advent of harvesting machines and technology’s dominance over agriculture, the old ways of gleaning haven’t necessarily evolved. No longer subsidized by landowners, they exist on the fringes of both society and the law.

French hip-hop accompanies homeless urban gleaners rummaging in grocery dumpsters. Varda interviews neo-rural gleaners in trailers whose pilfered potatoes are (unbeknownst to them) actually quite legal. They almost seem disappointed to find out. Urban dalliances with vandalism and dumpster-diving lead to interviews with a judge, a store manager and the delinquent youths themselves. All have their logic, within and without society’s boundaries. An ethical salvager’s rubber-booted crusade cheerfully chants the film’s core morality: we are a wasteful culture that intrinsically creates gleaners from our excess.

The other side of this film shows gleaning as an art and Varda as a gleaner-artist.

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The first-person handheld camera describes documentary as gleaning, picking up scraps of life to make into a film (this is more directly expressed when visiting the vineyard owned by the descendant of Étienne-Jules Marey, the inventor of the chronophotographic gun and creator of those old film clips you’ve seen of a bird in flight or a cat walking). Speaking to various gleaners of raw materials (who turn scrap into art) Varda embodies her newly discovered appreciation for artistic reuse.

Objects that have already had a life tell a story as new art while Varga films her gray hair and wrinkled hands. Picking up a handless clock to decorate her deteriorating, molding home, she say it “is my kind of thing – you don’t see time pass.” She gleans food, physical items and memories — the very footage she weaves into the film underscores that Varda, as a filmmaker, is also a gleaner. This concept is made explicit in the French title, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, translated as “the gleaners and the gleaners”. She takes and mixes, picks and chooses, with glee. Varda’s sense of play, fun, silliness and humor comes from a collected bricolage of incident, travel and people. She loves the world, the little things like discovering how people met, her moldy ceiling as abstract art or capturing passing trucks with her hands.

Unpacking her vacation suitcase, Agnès Varda explains how she gleaned souvenirs to recreate a trip to Japan. In the same way, we glean our memories to recreate our lives, each moment contributing to the beautiful, scrappy collage.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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