The Gleaners & I

The Gleaners and Agnès

In addition to being hailed as one of the most influential voices in French cinema, Agnès Varda has found herself become something of a walking meme for the cinephiles of the Letterboxd generation. Due to her renewed social media presence, it’s easy to view her on a similar cultural level to Iris Apfel, the 96-year-old fashion personality; both are embracing their old age and don’t shy away from the existential realities of it within their respective art forms, but neither are shackled by the expectations placed upon ageing women.

Varda’s films may be closer to mainstream tastes than before, with her recent crowdpleaser Faces Places getting an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but she’s still using experimental forms of storytelling that blossomed from the French New Wave – marrying conventional documentary techniques with genre defying aspects of personal essay. In Varda’s case, old age doesn’t necessarily mean a digression into more conservative styles of filmmaking.

Varda had made documentaries prior to The Gleaners & I, but her effort from the year 2000 is key to understanding how she is currently perceived within popular culture. Ostensibly, the film follows a diverse set of gleaners across France, from those hunting for food in the countryside, to various individuals in thriving metropolitan cities who go rooting through bins for their meals. But in Varda’s hands, the profiles of different gleaners across the country is married with a borderline existential personal essay. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, yet it manages to be both uplifting and entertaining, cementing itself as one of the finest films in Varda’s back catalogue – and arguably, the most essential of the selected efforts being reissued by Curzon in the build up to the much delayed UK release of Faces Places.

Varda doesn’t assign judgement to any of her subjects, maintaining an upbeat, humanist tone throughout despite a highly political anti-establishment message rearing its head throughout several of the vignettes here. In our current climate of austerity, the film has managed to age particularly well despite this tonal peculiarity; she lets other sides chime in with their arguments (at one point, even inviting lawyers to address the laws around gleaming to camera), but in ways that don’t dilute the general anger her central subjects have towards a system that favours wasting food and other objects of worth. It’s the most mild mannered anti-establishment film conceivable, with even the most damning sentiments towards authority (such as a brief focus on some hippie teenagers who protested against the food wastage of a supermarket), being undercut with friendly banter from Agnès, who in this case ponders how she was surprised they looked so good when they ate all their meals from bins.

The anti-establishment message is largely unintentional, of course – in interviews, Varda stated her interest in chronicling a variety of subjects ensured she had no central thesis statement of her own to make with the film. But the film is undeniably politicised, whether intentionally or not; one urban gleaner holds a master’s degree, teaching English to immigrants for no monetary gain. He has to survive on leftover fruit and bread from market stalls, a process that has been a staple of his daily life for years by the time Varda had interviewed him. Varda made a follow-up documentary two years later, but it would be interesting to see what she could make now, following an even harsher period of austerity that has severely affected the prospects of the “Millennial” generation. The quiet tragedy of university educated intellectuals left in poverty, roaming the streets for their core meals, would likely not be a rare case study as it was then.

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Aug 03, 2018

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