Taken to the Gleaners

Scrounging around the French countryside, Agnès Varda discovers a world of scavengers

"Glean" is a word not often used in English, except in the context of gleaning information. But in French it has a more common, more specific use--to pick up produce or other foodstuffs left behind by the harvest. In the mind of veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda (Le Bonheur, Vagabond), it has far broader application. In her new documentary, The Gleaners and I, she roams around France, interviewing all manner of gleaners.

Gleaners were a popular subject for 19th-century artists, and Varda's quest starts with some classic paintings--Jean-Francois Millet's 1867 Les Glaneuses (of a group of three women bending down to pick over a field) and Jules Breton's 1877 La Glaneuse (of a solitary woman carrying home her findings). If the portrayals are to be believed, postharvest gleaning was usually done by women in groups.

Things are different today, Varda discovers: There are just as many men, and they often work alone. And while one might imagine that modern harvesting techniques have reduced the opportunities, consider this: Machine-picking may be more cost-efficient, but in its mechanical clunkiness is more likely to miss more. For the growers, it is rarely worth the expense of hiring hand-pickers to clean up after; many simply allow gleaners to roam the fields after harvest day, so that the leftovers will not just rot.

Look what I've found: In Agnès Varda's documentary, you never know who will be gleaning next.
Look what I've found: In Agnès Varda's documentary, you never know who will be gleaning next.

In fact, "allow" may be the wrong word. As two lawyers explain on camera, gleaning (within certain restrictions) is a tradition acknowledged and protected by French law, at least since the 16th century. In Burgundy, however, more recent legislation has outlawed the practice in the vineyards, since many growers find it worthwhile to gather the leftover grapes to make very cheap table wines.

The first 10 or 15 minutes of Varda's film suggest a work of social commentary--a look at the extreme poor, à la last year's best documentary Dark Days. But this is misleading: The Gleaners and I is far from a plain call to action. In some ways, it is structured almost as a work of free association, as Varda (toting a digital video camera) drives around France seeking out a wide range of scavengers and stumbling upon types she never anticipated.

There is Edouard, a well-to-do young chef who wanders the local countryside to pick his own herbs; Louis Pons, an artist who collects inorganic refuse to use as the raw material for his collages and sculptures; Robert, who has a job, but sorts through dumpsters because he thinks it is unethical to let perfectly good food go to waste. Others "glean" discarded televisions from urban alleyways, quickly demolishing them to recover copper that can be resold.

Everyone in the film seems to have a different, personal take on the meaning and purpose of this activity. "No," one interviewee asserts, "if you gather hanging food, that's 'picking.' 'Gleaning' is only when you gather things that sprout from the ground"--a definition clearly not held by many of the others.

Varda makes no secret of the fact that the form of the film follows its subject matter. She herself is the central gleaner here, scouring for people and images, finding oddball bits and pieces that would be ignored by more conventionally focused investigators. (In fact, the English translation of the title doesn't really convey this as well as the original French: Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse clearly refers to Varda and her subjects.)

Any film organized this way is eventually as much a portrait of its author as of its subjects. When Varda occasionally examines her aging hands in amazement and horror, phrases like "picking that which is falling behind the reaper" echo with implications of the capital R Reaper.

But this makes the film sound grim, which is far from the case. Varda, still pixieish in her early 70s, is having fun here. Looking at an exhibition called Trash Is Beautiful, organized to teach kids how to make low-budget art, she asks, "Where does play end and art start?" The dividing line is a nebulous one, both in life and in Varda's film.

 
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