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film fatales #12: the gleaners & i (agnès varda, 2000)

Agnès Varda has always made films her own way, and her discovery of small digital cameras proved to be a blessing. No big crews, no expensive film, just grab your camera and hit the road. If you or I did that, we’d get at best an entertaining short home movie. But Varda is an artist, and this film, about “gleaners” (people who collect crops leftover after harvest), easily finds room for a gentle look at aging (Varda was 71 when she made the film), as well as an expansion of the notion of gleaning to include dumpster divers and, yes, filmmakers like Agnès Varda.

When I say parts of the film are “gentle”, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Yes, the overall tone is impish, as Varda shows ways to take pleasure in what we can find (“glean”) along the way. But if for the most part she avoids soap-box speechifying, we do find ourselves wondering why, in this day and age, people still need to get food from trash bins. But the gleaners are not pitiable. In fact, they are seen as members of society making the most of what the rest of us leave behind. Whatever condemnation we see is towards a society that so easily produces waste.

We even get the chef of a highly-rated restaurant who does his own gleaning for vegetables and herbs, saying that way, he knows what he is getting.

But what comes through more than anything is the joy Varda takes from the gleaners. At one point, she picks up a broken wall clock with no arms or hands. It would seem useless, but Varda puts it on a mantel in her house, telling us a clock without hands is perfect for her.

Not only does she connect her filmmaking to the act of gleaning, she also connects it to works of art from the past. She is inspired by a famous 19th-century painting by Jean-François Millet that shows peasant women working the field after a harvest. The connection to the post-harvest gleaners in the film is clear, but once she moves to those who are “urban gleaners”, her vision is expanded, as is ours in the audience. We, also, are gleaners. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #12 on the all-time 21st-century list. 8/10. (Other Varda films I have written about: Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, and my favorite, The Beaches of Agnes.)

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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