“There’s no shame, just worries”
What makes Agnès Varda such an integral voice in cinema is her colloquial way of engaging subjects. Everything appears as though unplanned when she visits locales believed to align with her current topic so as to capture unknown truths and adventure. None of her work does this better than Les glaneurs et la glaneuse [The Gleaners and I]: a French road-trip in honor of Jean-François Millet‘s 1857 painting The Gleaners at the Musée d’Orsay. In it she travels with a hand-held camcorder to unearth the various contemporary notions of gleaning at the turn-of-the-century whether with food, objects, art, or—on the director’s behalf—stories/images. The premise is to understand the process, means, and needs of gleaners, but the end result is a human portrait of life’s infinite surprises.
The film is yet another moving diary of Varda’s that captures regular people in their element—each more than comfortable sharing their entire life story with this stranger behind her camera—juxtaposed against similarly-themed paintings residing in each subsequent city, rap songs with relevantly politicized lyrics, and the filmmaker’s own mortality via the constant depiction of her own wrinkled hands. We meet leftovers from a not-quite-forgotten era of stooping behind farmers after the harvest for discarded and missed vegetation explaining how new technology has made the vocation all but obsolete for most crops. One that remains ripe for the picking, however, is the potato with literal tons left dormant in the dirt for anyone uncaring towards cosmetic attractiveness to come by and take legally for their dinner table.
From the immortalization of wheat gatherers on canvas comes an entranceway into a world of pilfering for both survival and recreation. Some of those on Varda’s path are homeless, others merely enjoy the excuse to be outside, and a few call themselves activists doing their best to lower the rate of waste despite having gainful employment and the salary to shop during business hours. From food she moves to salvage as trash cans evolve into trash heaps with semantic delineations between “gleaning” (taking from the ground) and “picking” (taking from branches) making way towards philosophies on the validity of expiration dates rendering one man’s garbage another man’s feast. Then from sustenance to found-object art and back again, Varda herself returns home with heart-shaped tubers and recycled chairs.
There’s humor in her ability to adapt and find her story on the fly whether allowing for self-deprecating humor (showing her lens cap dancing when she forgets to turn the camera off) or in-the-moment glee (her excitement when discovering the heart-shaped potatoes is a joy). Varda even invites two lawyers to explain the penal code concerning gleaners in cabbage fields or collectors on the streets—both more than happy to admit there’s nothing wrong with what’s happening. This doesn’t mean people don’t fear reparations, though, especially since so many engaged in these activities are on the fringes of society. Some gypsies don’t believe it’s legal, some farmers sabotage their crop to detract gleaners, and many clam opportunists simply guess at how much they can take.
The story I found most intriguing didn’t involve anyone trying to subsist on leftovers, but instead a successful chef. He’s the perfect example of Varda’s luck and ear to procure fascinating yarns from seemingly nowhere as her query in his kitchen about what he does with the waste receives a response explaining how there isn’t any. Not only does he use everything for second day soups, stocks, and sauces, but he gleans for all his herbs as well. Taught the craft by his grandparents, he has no shame being frugal in the fields to grab everything necessary for his one hundred dollar a plate gourmet meals. Call it garbage picking or call it environmentally sound, the vocation’s legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder.
Varda ventures out to wine country, speaks with the plaintiff and defendants of a supermarket vandalism case, meets amateur artists recycling throwaways as well as famous (Louis Pons), and even a Masters Degree-holding gentleman roaming farmer’s markets for meals before volunteering to teach English to poor refugees is introduced. It’s amazing the people she comes in contact with all because of a genial demeanor and warm smile. No one could ever see Varda coming with her camera and think exploitation because she’s simply too invested and honestly interested in anything you have to say. She asks permission, frames the footage as telling your specific story, and finds a way to string it all together at the end. This movie isn’t hers—it’s a beast of its own.
There’s a beauty to this complete lack of ego. I saw it in The Beaches of Agnès too wherein she’s personable enough to make herself as at-ease and invested as the strangers she meets along the way. So while her ambition was to learn about gleaning to understand the transformation the process has underwent during the past century, nothing she does is ever so rigidly constructed. As soon as she meets someone out of that focus she refuses to simply ignore him/her before continuing back on track when what they are still fits her concept in a broad sense. How else can she suddenly place herself alongside them, collecting and documenting their histories and philosophies to immortalize onscreen? The film ultimately proves one irreversible truth: we’re all gleaners.