To call Agnès Varda the grande dame of the French New Wave is not wrong, but it suggests a woman so much more imposing than Varda actually is. One of several reasons for her greatness is a highly disarming personality. It’s clear right away in the brilliant overture to The Gleaners and I, Varda’s self-described “wandering-road documentary” from 2001. This idiosyncratic yet ever-topical essay on conservation and sustainability just wouldn’t be what it is without the impish, intelligent, hugely charming lady at the center of it all.
It starts with Varda looking up “gleaner” in a dictionary, assisted by her cat. “To glean is to gather after the harvest,” she says, already hinting at the word’s other meaning: to extract or collect, bit by bit. The dictionary includes famous French paintings of gleaners — next stop, museum. How swiftly Varda wins us over to her peculiar research project. “Gleaning, that’s the old way,” says her first interviewee, a woman in a field. “My mother would say, ‘Pick everything up so nothing gets wasted.’ But sadly we no longer do because machines are so efficient nowadays.”
It’s obvious by now that the driving energy here is curiosity, not contentiousness. What follows, we already can tell, will be an attentive and insightful cultural survey, of gleaners both rural and urban, pre-modern and contemporary — all subject to Varda’s effortlessly artful and deeply personal consideration.
The film’s five-minute overture ends with Varda posing in an homage to Jules Breton’s painting, La Glaneuse, with a bushel of wheat on one shoulder. Then she lets the wheat fall away, raises a video camera — her main gleaning apparatus — and points it right back at us. The Gleaners and I is a sociological undertaking but also a fine entertainment. And it’s a documentary but also a bravura performance, by Varda herself.