The Gleaners, an oil painting by Jean-François Millet.
In her documentary The Gleaners & I (2000), Agnes Varda’s point-of-departure is a 1857 painting by Jean-Francois Millet portraying three women gleaning the fields. The painting, hanging in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, is captured in the film through crowds of onlookers. While in his painting Millet sought to give a voice to the plight of the 19th-century poor, Varda expands the topic and draws a contemporary picture of what it means to glean in the 20th century.
With camera in hand and a small crew, Varda, who was in her 70s at the time, criss-crosses France. On her way from Paris to the northern countryside, to the wine region of Burgundy, to the oyster farms on the seashore and back, Varda meets gleaners of a vast array of agricultural products. Men and women who sift through tons of unmarketable potatoes, apples, and tomatoes, and who take over a deserted vineyard. In the city, she highlights urban excess, market-day leftovers and supermarket waste.
Maintaining a sense of humor, she places magistrates in black robes in the field to inform us that gleaning of food follows 16th-century laws. However, gleaning of rejected objects, images and impressions has no regulations. Artists collect discarded articles to create objects of art, and Varda partakes in the activities and in doing so the factual and the personal intermingle. While narrating the story she takes her own camera and gleans images of her aging hands, of trucks passing by, and of abstract shapes on her wet ceiling. A remarkable film which is as informative as it is entertaining.
The film (in French with English subtitles) can be found on Vimeo and on DVD at Amazon.
— TOVA BECK-FRIEDMAN
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