Ten years after the death of spouse Jacques Demy, the restoration of whose work (including the gorgeous, poignant 1964 musical Umbrellas of Cherbourg) she has tirelessly supervised, Belgian-born Agnès Varda has arrived at her own masterpiece. It’s a road picture (“a wandering-road documentary,” Varda has called it), as was her stunning Vagabond (1985)—only, this time it is she, the filmmaker, armed with a digital camera, who is on the road picking up a store of sights and sounds. (Varda: “I also wanted to roam around. To meet people. To seek them out.”) The film, about gleaners and gleaning, is titled Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. It has been given the English title The Gleaners and I, the “I” meaning Varda, and the result has won best film or best documentary prizes at the European Film Awards and, in the U.S., the Chicago International Film Festival, and from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics and, in the U.S., the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Boston Society of Film Critics. Varda was also honored for the film at the Vienna Film Festival.
The English title, however, is a mistranslation. For Varda to be “la glaneuse” would require, because of the definite article, that she be the only female gleaner in the film. She is not—although I suppose one can argue that in one sense she is, because as filmmaker she is the only figure in the film out and about “gleaning” images. Nevertheless, an entirely different meaning suggests itself regarding those who in particular glean food, that is, pick up the leftovers from fields following a harvest. The men who do this—who, we shall see, have historically come late to the activity—glean as individuals, whereas woman gleaners function additionally as various forms of the archetypal gleaner, historically, a woman. Hence the singular la glaneuse, which refers not only to Varda but to all other women gleaners; in effect, the definite article and singular female form of the word unite all women gleaners across space and time. In a solitary state and striking out into new territory (this is Varda’s maiden use of the digital camera), Varda draws particular support for her documentary study of gleaning not only from the men and women gleaners she watches and interviews but also from the tradition of the female gleaner to which she now finds herself belonging. It’s a delicious sense, if you will, of gender communion—the essence of the feminist mindset.
As a founding member of the nouvelle vague in the 1950s, Varda also feels a spiritual connection to Jean Renoir, one of the movement’s principal sources of inspiration, and she wastes no time in expressing this. For she opens Les glaneurs et la glaneuse by opening an encyclopedic dictionary page to find the definitions of glean and gleaner, recalling the opening of Renoir’s great Une partie de campagne (1936), from Maupassant, which opens by opening a dictionary and finding the word love. Thus slyly and subtly—it’s the associativeness of poetry—Varda implies a connection between gleaning and love, in this case, the love of labor, the love of avoiding and triumphing over waste, and love of the earth that grows grain, fruits and vegetables and, hence, sustains human life.
These are the definitions that Varda uncovers and recites: “To glean is to gather after the harvest”; “the gleaner is one who gleans.”
Ah, the rich associativeness of Varda’s cinematic method! For so dramatic is the opening of the pertinent volume of Larousse’s Dictionary of the French Language that something is conveyed of the opening of a Bible. It’s perfectly fitting, therefore, that we next hear the voice of Varda remarking, “In the beginning, only women were gleaners.” In the beginning. That is how this film works; this is Varda’s method, one both sumptuous and precise. This connects with that, which connects almost immediately with something else. The cumulative result is a sense of possibilities, of a world alive with associations compounding associations, and of the artist alert to discovering these here, there and anywhere. If ever there was a film that functions, in toto, as a metaphor for life, this is it.
“In the beginning, only women were gleaners.” This implies, among other things, that the activity, close to the earth, is somehow essentially, intrinsically and innately female; it isn’t a stretch to say that the gleaners we see in the famous 1857 painting by Jean-François Millet are metaphorically giving birth to what they glean, for they are giving the “new life” of utility to what would otherwise be left to rot. Moreover, in this case “utility”—usefulness—denotes the nurturing and the sustenance of human life. Humans may not be able to live by food alone, but they need food to live; and of course Millet’s painting The Gleaners captures a scene of dire poverty besides, where gleaning isn’t simply a useful activity but a necessary one in order to avert starvation. More complex still, Millet gives a glow, a lighting, to the image that suggests a spiritual as well as material activity. This spirituality is warm and comforting; however, it’s also terribly ironical, because the spiritual aura reminds us how close to death are these women and the families they represent. They are “close to the earth” in the harsh, ultimate sense of burial.
Gleaning as snatching morsels of life from death’s hovering shadow: Varda makes plain through purely visual means that this is a theme of hers, by speeding up the motion of the museum patrons viewing the Millet painting to suggest, by contrast to the fixed nature of the canvas, the rush of time that characterizes human life and humanity’s persistent mortal awareness, which of course includes our various attempts to sidestep this awareness. Varda suggests by the quickened tempo of these (mostly young) people that their art-gazing is just such an attempt. Inhospitable to time for being inhospitable to her, Varda late in the film picks up a handless clock; but, alas, the clock does have symbolic hands: Varda’s own wrinkled ones, which she shows in several closeups throughout the film as inescapable testimony of her upcoming end. Unmentioned, the death a decade ago of her spouse of nearly thirty years surely contributes to her strong sense that her life is waning. After all, Varda is in her seventies.
One of the stops on her automobile journey is Arras. There is another painting in a museum there: Jules Breton’s 1877 Woman Gleaning, in which a woman, standing upright, shoulders a collection of wheat. Varda (perhaps with the tableaux vivants in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1983 Passion in mind) reconstitutes the painting, replacing its human subject with herself. She drops the wheat and picks up the camera. (The shot could be using a mirror; more likely, another camera is recording Varda and her camera, thereby stressing the documentary’s subjective and meditative nature.) It’s at this point that the motif of Varda’s wrinkled hand is introduced; reclining, Varda places her left hand on her face and then pushes it forward to block the camera’s view of her—that is, to block the view of the camera that she herself had set up to view her. This is exquisite visual irony commenting on the ambivalence of her journey and current enterprise: the confrontation between herself and her mortality that she wishes she could avoid. The moment, charming and witty, lightly grazes the heart. The next image, though, pierces: a closeup of Varda’s scalp as she combs her thinning gray hair into a likeness of fullness. “My hair and my hands keep telling me,” Varda states, “the end is near.” Now there is a closeup of her hand lifted off the steering wheel of her car as she drives to another destination—a brilliantly witty visual “remark” to the effect that her hand, however old, still has things to do. Varda later states, “This is my project: to film with one hand my other hand,” and indeed it’s the reprised shots of her hands that forge an implicit connection between her and her sister and fellow humanity, for shot apart from the particulars of her her hands could be any older person’s hands—the hands of anyone, for that matter, since each of us at some point will face his or her end.
It is death’s prospect that brings such force to our embrace of life. It’s this suffering that we all must endure—our knowledge that our lives will end—that largely accounts for human compassion. It is the stuff of kinship within the species. For many, the ultimate loss of life is something rehearsed by experience. Life can be a series of losses, a repetitive and heartrending trial (and trail) of losses. It is in this context that we process Varda’s images of city folk rummaging through garbage pails for scraps of food to ward off death one more day—scenes that grip all the harder because Varda strives to record them dispassionately. The principal sense of life as loss, though, derives from one of Varda’s interviewees, one of the new breed of male gleaners. It’s a shattering passage despite—because of—the fact that Varda gives it no special, which is to say, sentimental attention. Although relatively young, the man, like Varda, has thinning hair—a perfect though (because?) purely coincidental visual connection. This man, homeless, gleans to stay alive. He recites his case history. He had been a truck driver, working 21 to 22 hours every day. One day, the police pulled him over and tested his sobriety with a breathalyzer. As a result of his driving while under the influence he lost his driver’s license, in turn his job, in turn his marriage. His life went into “free-fall,” he says. Indeed, his divorce separated him from his children, who now live 500 miles away. He hasn’t seen them in two years. With what tact Varda draws the analogy between discarded items ripe for rummaging and discarded people ripe for her rummaging as an artist. Life is about loss: this seed blossoms into the idea that people are being lost, and that part of “social gleaning,” if you will, must be the recovery of these individuals. Again, how fascinatingly things connect in this film, one idea leading to another!
It’s in the context of such concerns that the film implies fault when paths are blocked to gleaners. One of Varda’s stops is Burgundy—wine country. Among the film’s most powerful images shows grapes left for ruin because winegrowers prohibit gleaning on their land. Varda even enlarges the context, to enrich the image further, by suggesting the inhumanity of capitalism, for not only at the tail end of harvest are grapes prohibited from being collected in order to feed people but the production of wine is strategically limited to increase its value, thus ensuring the waste of more and more grapes. It’s a lunatic cycle. Varda remarks on the “surplus left to rot on the ground . . . lost to everybody.” If the former truck driver, barely surviving, is the male descendent of the woman gleaners in Millet’s painting, then we might very well imagine other descendents of theirs starving to death from such outrageous waste of food as Burgundy generates. Varda’s film is all the more potent for not showing images of such misery and death. Besides undercutting the parallel theme of the beauty of gleaning and the dearness of life, thus unbalancing the film, these images, had they been included, would also have disfigured the film with sentimental melodrama. Once viewers themselves make the pertinent connections because of the resonant form that Varda has given the film, these connections (again) pierce.
Along her journey Varda encounters all kinds of rummaging and scavenging—for instance, “loading up,” that is, the retrieval of heavy objects that people get rid of. Indeed, this particular example resonates with a sense of the burden that mortal awareness imposes on humanity. (Heavy lifting, as it were.) Varda can be stark and direct in her utterances; at one point she states the purpose of her film thusly: “To enter into the horror of [aging]. I feel I am an animal—worse, an animal I don’t know.” At an extreme, gleaning is also human activity on the brink of disaster and death, where behavior can seem instinctual and animalistic because of its driving motive of survival. Certainly this isn’t why Varda gleans; for her, it is recycling, the conversion of waste to use. However, the context that her wondrous film provides enables us to appreciate the suffering of humanity and the role that gleaning plays in alleviating this, either by the patient, energetic activity it provides or by the fruits (and vegetables, and so forth!) it provides, in either case taking hands off the clock. Perhaps nothing so incorporates both the suffering and its transcendence as the humility that the film identifies with gleaning (and with making documentaries, Varda has stated, owing to the occasion of meeting different people in their own lives), in Varda’s remark, for example, that gleaning requires stooping low—humbly, that is, and rewardingly.