No doubt the single most famous image of gleaning is Jean-François Millet’s 1867 painting, Les Glaneuses, with its depiction of three women in a field, bowing as though in obeisance to the earth, searching for post-harvest edibles. Part of its long-lasting appeal is that it’s simply a beautifully composed image, but another is its rustic charm, its portrayal of uncomplicated and meaningful activity, which, seen through a haze of modern longing, provokes feelings of lost purpose rather than the sore backs and daily tedium of actual field work. In her new film-essay, The Gleaners and I, veteran French director Agnès Varda elaborates on this image and shows how the activity of gleaning is not a historical quaintness but still very much with us.
Varda began her career as a photojournalist, but has been a filmmaker for nearly 50 years, starting with her first short documentaries in the ’50s. She achieved her first acclaim with the fiction films Cleo From 5 To 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1964), and continued to be a vital presence with films like the wrenching Vagabond (1985) and Jacquot de Nantes (1990), her moving remembrance of her late husband Jacques Demy (director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). So Gleaners is the work of an eminent auteurist, someone with a track record as an elliptical provocateur, a willful poet and an organic avant-gardist.
At the age of 71, Varda took her video camera on the road, traveling around France and gleaning her images of gleaners, people who live on the refuse of others, scouring country fields and city trashcans, out of dire necessity or a sense of frugality or, in the case of a chef, a sort of epicurean practicality. And it’s not just food that’s gleaned, it’s refrigerators, televisions, everything left behind.
This could be a grim subject, and there are some images of desperation, but Varda seems more interested in the sportive survivor aspect of gleaning, the way some people get by with surprising cheerfulness on what many would think of as very little. This and her irrepressible discursiveness – driving down the highway she becomes entranced by the alien topography of her wrinkled hand in close-up – steers the film away from indictments and more toward a childlike awe.
It’s a captivating film, hovering at times near preciousness but staying mainly in the realm of generous appreciation.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Learn more about the life and films of Agnès Varda in this week's "Reckless Eyeballing" column.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.