Seasoned Gallic filmmaker Agnes Varda has made a decidedly low-key offering with “The Gleaners and I,” a docu about folks across France who go around picking up everything from potatoes to abandoned fridges. By keeping things down-home and off-the-cuff, Varda has come through with a memorable, intriguing pic that takes viewers to places and spotlights people rarely seen or heard from on the big or small screen. The result is a fascinating portrait, centering mainly on people who live on the fringes of society. Not an obvious commercial proposition, pic may find its most likely home in Eurotube slots. It is already sold to Canal Plus in France.
The tradition of gleaning goes back centuries in France, to the peasants who used to gather the leftover wheat from fields after the harvest. After talking to people who glean potatoes, Varda follows a modern-day gleaner who lives in a decrepit mini-trailer in an open field, in one of pic’s bleaker moments. She then hits the road to meet an acclaimed chef who gleans on the side and makes her way to the vineyards of Burgundy, where gleaning is illegal.
One of the pleasures here is that Varda is not averse to taking detours from the main topic if something strikes her fancy. There’s a fascinating interview with a wine-grower who doubles as a psycho-analyst. Similarly, she shoots trucks barreling down the highway simply because she likes the image.
She talks with and films urban gleaners, including an artist who creates his pieces from found objects and an odd fellow in giant rubber boots who has lived exclusively on trash for the past 10 years (and has never been ill!).
There’s a droll touch to many of the sequences that nicely counter-balances the darker moments. Varda herself is present throughout. She supplies the voiceover, much of which is quite personal; she talks about the aging process and underlines the similarities between these gleaners and a filmmaker like herself.
Music is used sparingly, though there are a couple of instances of blaring French-language rap. Pic was shot in digital video and blown up to 35mm, and image quality is fine. If anything, it appears that the small camera and the lack of a large crew helped make these characters on the periphery of society less self-conscious and more apt to talk openly about their lives.