Engaging Find: Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I

A film review by Aaron Prevots Assistant Professor of Modern Languages, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures

Having asked my students in Contemporary French Culture to write about films, I wanted to put together a brief look at one of our favorites: Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I.

What especially intrigues me in watching this quiet, conversational documentary from 2000 is how open it is to interpretation. It follows the pattern not unusual in French films of examining an idea from several angles without allowing easy resolution. Inspired by images in 19th-century art of farmhands collecting the last stalks left untouched on the ground after the harvest, it features the filmmaker herself setting out with digital video camera in hand to gather images of people gathering—be it potatoes, grapes, packaged food past its sell-by date, or stray furniture in the street awaiting a new resting place.

Sound too layered and broad? To the film’s admirers, therein lies much of its appeal. Because Varda interviews all kinds of people, from farmhands to barkeepers to artists to those living without a fixed address, there’s a real authenticity that allows for an open viewer response. Is it a poetic meditation on time and the evolution of Western consumer society? A biting social critique focused on people and things that get discarded and left behind? A gentle reflection on the power of objects to circulate and lead second lives?

For Southwestern’s Family Days 2006, Professor of Art Mary Visser offered a Classroom Exchange titled “Wave of Light: poetry is the breath of memory, and sculpture is that memory in time and space.” This title really stuck with me. It recently got me to thinking how one could refer to Varda’s perspective on gleaning as the breath of memory within the contemporary social sphere. The film sculpts a vision not only of people learning to survive through the years, but also of things in the outer world taking on a life of their own and transmitting to us a kind of knowledge. It instills awareness not didactically, but by providing the raw material for the viewer to explore how and why people and things persevere. In reconsidering traditions of graceful survival, it both shares a portrait of France heading into the new millennium and gives humble gatherers of all kinds an unexpected voice.

Looking for other recommendations? Visit the A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center Web site: www.southwestern.edu/library/reviews/what-reading.html.