Widely lauded by critics upon its release, Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I is a freewheeling lyrical documentary that celebrates the timeless practice of gleaning and those who engage in it. Nowadays we usually speak about gleaning metaphorically: one gleans meanings or information. But in its original sense, gleaning refers to going into the fields after a harvest to collect the fallen ears of wheat, which is depicted in the famous Jean-François Millet painting. Varda references the painting in the beginning of the film, starting a conversation between the mid-nineteenth century oil painting, with its sympathetic portrayal of the austere peasants in the French countryside, and her similarly sympathetic film from the dawn of the digital age, which also brims with Varda’s signature sense of humor, curiosity, empathy, and openness to the world. The Gleaners and I is a quietly powerful meditation on not only the strength of those who make use of scraps of all kinds but also the very potential of documentary filmmaking to ennoble its subjects while nearly enchanting the viewer through relatively simple yet carefully deployed filmmaking techniques.
One of the first things a viewer might notice about The Gleaners and I is its homespun quality. The opening sequence immediately establishes this quality where Varda flips through the pages of an old dictionary, reading the definitions for “gleaning” and “gleaner” while zooming in on the black and white reproductions of paintings of gleaners. This sequence imbues the film with an almost storybook quality, as though she had just happened upon these definitions in a dictionary, which sets Varda off on her “wandering-road movie”. Opening the film with this sequence creates a much gentler cinematic space than that which many documentaries that grapple with social issues create. Instead of starting us off in the realm of appalling statistics or shocking stories, Varda begins with a plain definition from which the film branches off.
The homespun quality is also partially attributable, however, to technology. The Gleaners and I is the first film that Varda shot on digital. Though it might seem trivial now that almost everyone has access to digital moviemaking equipment on a phone, when an auteur like Varda decided to work in the medium in the year 2000, it caused a stir. In this case, it seems as though Varda’s reasoning was threefold. It was partly practical: using digital allowed her to work in a quick and limber manner difficult to achieve with a full crew. It was also partly aesthetic: digital, especially in its rougher days in the early aughts, registered a rawness and immediacy that is effective in the context of documentary and which film lacks. But, as Varda herself makes clear in the film, the decision was mostly for pleasure: In another playful sequence, she sings the praises of her mini-DV camera, calling it “fantastic” and exalting its “hyper-realistic” effect. Her shooting throughout the film has the spontaneous quality one finds in home movies, peeling away possible barriers between the viewer and the film. She also pans over the camera’s manual, illuminating the process behind making the film. Correspondingly, she treats the camera like she would one of her subjects, introducing it at the start of the film, a fitting move considering that the camera is her co-gleaner, gathering images for the film.
When she introduces the camera, Varda uses it as an opportunity to further remind the viewer of her presence and the constructed nature of the film. After driving to the town of Arras to see another painting of gleaning, Jules Breton’s Woman Gleaning, Varda reenacts the painting by standing beside it and holding a bushel of wheat over her shoulder. Along the way, she films trucks on the highway, an image she returns to repeatedly in the film. She abruptly lets the wheat fall, saying “I’m happy to drop the ears of wheat and pick up my camera”. By performing this gesture, in addition to simply having fun, Varda reiterates the connection between her film and these nineteenth century paintings of gleaning. She also strengthens her own connection to the other gleaners she meets throughout the film, connections which she infuses with empathy.
Because the film is so effectively subtle about it, it is easy to forget that The Gleaners and I is a political film. It embodies the best qualities of social critique—awareness and compassion—without falling prey to the worst—didacticism and condescension. Just as the Millet painting depicts peasants with sympathy, thereby bridging the emotional gap between the high and low rungs of nineteenth century French society, The Gleaners and I does the same for its contemporary subjects. Towards the beginning of the film, we meet Claude, a former truck driver gleaning potatoes. Claude shows Varda around the trailer park where he lives, including the small outdoor tap from which he and the other residents get water, as well as his trophy finds from gleaning. Claude tells Varda his story of being overworked and becoming unemployed, divorced, and separated from his children. Even though Claude’s story is tragic, Varda relates it in such a way that evokes empathy rather than pity. She achieves this effect through the minimally mediated nature of her filmmaking process and by shifting the focus to Claude’s resilience, as exemplified by gleaning. Claude’s history as a truck driver also ties him to one of the film’s salient recurring images.
When passing more trucks on the highway, Varda puts her thumb and forefinger together in a circle to frame the trucks in one of the many poetic moments in the patchwork of the film. As she approaches, she closes her hand around the trucks. “Capturing trucks,” she says, “to retain things before they pass? No, just to play.” Later, while filming a children’s art education project that involves turning garbage into art, Varda muses “where does play end and art start?” This seems to be one of the central questions of The Gleaners and I, one which Varda wisely leaves unanswered. Part of the film’s magic is that, as it progresses, everything it touches begins to seem like gleaning and gleaning becomes so similar to art- or filmmaking that they blur together, each suffusing the other with its powers of insight, playfulness, creativity, and resilience.