In My Solitude
Nadine Zylberberg on The Gleaners and I
My favorite moment in Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I is one that wasn’t meant to happen at all. A family is singing, using pruning shears as instruments, as they pick neglected grapes off vines on a French hillside. After Varda documents their story and song, she accidentally leaves her camcorder on. It dangles, offering us a view of yellowed leaves and grasses, a lens cap swaying in the frame. She takes full advantage of this “dance,” pairing it with a jazz tune and letting it ride out a moment longer than any other filmmaker might.
When it came out, The Gleaners and I, Varda’s 2000 documentary about modern-day foragers such as this family, reminded the world of her radical status in the French film canon. With La Pointe Courte and Cléo from 5 to 7, she made her mark as one of the very few female filmmakers of the 1960s French New Wave movement (thus her nickname, Grandmother of the French New Wave). She created a multifaceted career with a feminist musical (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), a striking documentary about the murals of Los Angeles (Mur Murs), a star-studded fantasy about cinema’s centennial (One Hundred and One Nights), and a tribute to her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy (Jacquot de Nantes)—among others, imbuing each with her experiences and her musings about the world around her. Gleaners, however, was my introduction to the work of Agnès Varda. I first watched the documentary in college, just as my appreciation—and possible vocation—in film began to come into focus.
From the first scene, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. The France I knew onscreen was the one from Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. My notions of Frenchness were imbued with color and whimsy and stories of romance. Music filled the spaces between the words, whether it was Yann Tiersen’s accordion-filled score or Catherine Deneuve singing—beautifully—of her feelings for a car mechanic named Guy. Of course, Frenchness also manifested for me as a young cinephile elsewhere: in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, two very different crime dramas shot in black-and-white and set squarely in Paris and its outskirts, both unapologetic in their approach. As a result, Frenchness, to me, was characterized by drama and rugged beauty and always a touch of humor, even at the darkest points.
When I came to Gleaners, I brought with me these images of alternating fantasticism and realism only to be exposed to something altogether different. The colors here were more muted and the weather cloudier, in a way that reminded me of cities or countryside locales I’ve visited on a rainy day. The scenes lingered, giving subjects time to think before they spoke, feeling closer to the way time really passes. Still, it exposed an entirely new world: that of a woman who has never left her French farmland (“I was born in that farmhouse and I’ll die there too,” she says) and a man who, for ethical reasons alone, lives entirely off food scraps he finds in the trash. It’s a movie about French paintings and antiques and farmers and city dwellers—through the eyes of a (Belgian-born) French woman. So, while inherently foreign to me on many levels, by investigating the global practice of gleaning—which began as the traditional culling of leftover crops from the fields and has transformed into all forms of collecting and recycling—and making it so personal, the film offers access into this world of “otherness.”
I learned then just how useful a camera can be in not only creating worlds but discovering ones that already exist, just out of view. That surely contributed to my creeping sense of shame: Why didn’t I recognize the gleaners (dumpster divers, beach combers) in my city? What happened to my trash after I threw it out—and why didn’t I care? Gleaners was formative in my understanding of the power, as well as the subversive nature, of documentary. How, in showing a different but very real world, it can inspire deep reflections about one’s own. That said, I also remember the whimsy with which Varda traveled the country, playing private games with trucks along the highway, pretending to trap them with her hand in front of the camera, or marveling at a spot of mold on her ceiling, likening it to an abstract landscape painting worthy of framing. She gleaned for herself, picking fig after fig off a tree, taking one juicy bite before tossing it with glee. Perhaps her documentary wasn’t meant to inspire shame, but humility. And, in doing so, it recontextualized my experience with all the French cinema that I had seen before, expanding definitions of beauty and humor and what it is to capture an experience, real or imagined, unapologetically.
I recently rewatched The Gleaners and I and the same element of wonder remained, perhaps even more acutely in the wake of Varda’s death. I gained a newfound appreciation for the power of the camera—and particularly of Varda’s camera more—to collect (to glean) stories from the peripheries of society with patience and candor. Amidst a pandemic, there’s a comfort in witnessing another artist’s discovery—of language, of country, of history. Her joy is our joy. Her frustration is ours. When she starts the film with dictionary definitions—gleaning, to glean, gleaner—she’s introducing the viewer to a way of life on paper before welcoming us inside. She’s our narrator and our guide (and, as she raps at one point in the film’s score, our soundtrack), taking us on a sorely needed road trip to parts unknown.
As inviting as she makes the journey, there’s still something solitary about it all, something that resonates with the current moment. I can’t help but notice how, whether on the beaches of Noirmoutier, the vineyards of Burgundy, or the studios of Sannois, people glean alone, making meals or art of their findings. At several points, Varda has one hand on the camera and another in front of it. When she travels to Beauce in northern France to witness locals gleaning hundreds of pounds of potatoes, she marvels at the misshapen—or, rather, heart-shaped—ones left behind. She picks a potato and films it up close. After taking a few home, she films them once again, this time even closer. We’ve just witnessed a gleaner in action, bringing to the forefront (of her lens) objects and images that are neither desirable nor profitable by society’s standards. Her gleaning is reflected in her camerawork, as though she goes off, to a small village or a pasture, and records what she finds interesting—without asking anyone for permission. With her handheld camera, just like with her hands, she is gleaning, coming in after the potatoes have been harvested and the apples picked, and filming what remains. Through the camera, I feel as though maybe I’m gleaning alongside her, picking these images and storing them up for later.
From the comfort of my couch, I can’t help but notice the grueling physicality on the screen. Gleaners past and present, rural and urban, all have something in common: they bend down. On this viewing, I couldn’t shake this image. As one woman in the film puts it, you pick what hangs, but you glean what grows up from the earth. Whether it’s the scene in Millet’s painting, The Gleaners, hanging at the Musee d’Orsay or closing time at a Parisian farmers’ market, this centuries-old practice looks much the same, if you swap bundles of wheat for a TV set on the side of the road.
By partaking in the activity herself, by immortalizing otherwise ignored people on film, by choosing the images she chooses, Varda takes a self-reflexive approach, showing the treasures that lie in the unwanted. For an uninitiated film student like myself, Gleaners was a virtual tour of the language and landscapes of France, a chance to walk in a film icon’s shoes. Upon rewatching, I see an expanded definition of gleaning at work. So many of the images Varda chooses to include would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor in many other filmmakers' hands. The definition is expanded even further when you note that she’s filming digitally. There is no physical waste in the process of picking and choosing shots, but waste nonetheless.
I remember that camera lens cap, dancing against the backdrop of a vineyard. One image of thousands, but thankfully, one that Varda chose to keep in her exploration of a marginalized community, a marginalized activity, an ocean away from me.