The film is more than a documentary — it’s a kind of personal essay on celluloid by French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda, director of “Le Bonheur” and “Sans Toit Ni Loi”. She’s inspired by several old paintings that depict women picking up grain from the fields, and goes on to look for this traditional practice in all of its modern forms, observing some fascinating things along the way. One of the most interesting things is the way different people look at the same phenomenon differently, depending on their relationship to it. A supermarket manager explains how certain food must be removed from the store at a certain point, whether it’s still edible or not; it’s a matter of law and public health as well as good business. From the scavenger’s point of view, the manager is crazy — in fact, so is the entire way of life he represents. People throw away plenty of good food every day, and it’s almost a crime not to pick it up out of the trash and eat it. Yum yum.
The film’s funniest moment turns on exactly this kind of difference in perspective. An artist, who bikes through the region looking for found objects to use in his creations, shows Varda how he finds his materials.
“Some of the towns are thoughtful enough to publish a map like this, showing the areas and times where objects will be available on the streets,” he says, holding up just such a map.
“But isn’t that actually a map of dates for people to put out their trash?” Varda notes. “Oh, yeah, right,” says the artist, as if he’s never considered that the system wasn’t set up simply for his benefit. Trash and treasure, clearly, are in the eyes of the beholder..
Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote:
There’s a suggestive discrepancy between the French and English titles of this wonderful essay film completed by Agnes Varda last year. It’s a distinction that tells us something about the French sense of community and the Anglo-American sense of individuality — concepts that are virtually built into the two languages. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse can be roughly translated as “the gleaners and the female gleaner,” with the plural noun masculine only in the sense that all French nouns are either masculine or feminine. The Gleaners and I sets up an implicit opposition between “people who glean” and the filmmaker, whereas Les glaneurs et la glaneuse links them, asserting that she’s one of them. Gleaners gather up the leftovers of edible crops — grain, fruit, vegetables — after the harvesters are finished with their work. Varda la glaneuse films what other filmmakers have left behind after their harvesting. The link between the two activities is made graphic at one point when Varda gleans a potato with one hand while filming it with the other. She keeps shifting between the kinds of gleaners she finds — in paintings as well as life — and her own diverse gleaning activities, such as bringing back souvenirs from Japan or collecting memorabilia on her road trips while making this film. She also does such things as film the veins in her hand to record the process of her aging.