What does it mean to collect that which is not wanted?  Who are the people who participate in such an activity, and why do they choose to do so?  In Agnès Varda’s magnificent, endearingly quirky and deeply bittersweet documentary The Gleaners and I, these questions are contemplated.  Varda, a director who is often associated with the French New Wave but whose outstanding career actually predates many of her New Wave fellows and continues with gusto to this day, is an artist of great insight.  In true artist fashion, The Gleaners and I begins with a muse: Jean-François Millet’s painting “Les Gleneuses.”  In this classic canvas, women are stooped over in a field, gleaning remaining potatoes leftover from the harvest.  Richly hued light caresses their backs.  Upon seeing this painting, Varda is immediately fascinated with the act of gleaning, and sets about with her digital handheld camera (a point of pride and delightful novelty for a director of over fifty years) to find France’s modern-day gleaners.  She narrates to us in her wise and feisty voice, “Gleaning might be extinct, but stooping has not vanished from our sated society.  Urban and rural gleaners all stoop to pick up.  There’s no shame, just worries.”

As The Gleaners and I reveals, there are limitless and wildly varying reasons (from humorous to heart-wrenching) that people glean what greater society has deemed as trash.  An unkempt man who identifies as a gypsy is interviewed extensively after Varda meets him at a dump-zone for aesthetically unpleasing potatoes. The misshapen potatoes, unwanted by commercial grocery stores, are the man’s vital source of nourishment.  His grotty nearby trailer, at risk of being shooed off by government officials, tells the story of a bleak life characterized by one misfortune after another.  At a midpoint in the film, Varda interviews and tags along with a delightfully strange character who, despite having a home and a steady income, has spent the past decade of his life eating solely from the waste-bins of his city’s alleyways.  The man lumbers along, his bald spot shining and his “king of the city” rubber boots keeping up a good clip, as he explains to Varda the vast, untapped food potential in the average trashcan.  His reason for this unusual—some would say disgusting—lifestyle? Over-consumption leads to pollution, which in turn is killing the earth’s birds!

Less odd but equally as interesting is the artist Hervé, alias VR99, who collects only large, abandoned objects and pieces of furniture.  He eagerly shows Varda a map, made by city officials, which conveniently highlights the places around town one can find such substantial objects.  Varda coyly asks him if the map is in fact meant as a guide to the places people can dump said objects.  VR99 grins sheepishly.  When Varda first introduces VR99, she mentions that with the turn of the millennium the artist will change his name to VR2000.  The Gleaners and I was shot in the months approaching the millennium, and in the midst of the then vast and ominously looming mystery of Y2K.  Though millennial anticipation and fear is never specifically addressed in the documentary, these insecurities lurk subtly at the borders of the film.  A fascination with gleaning—with the act of salvaging and neurotically collecting—indeed has resonance with the pre-millenial collective mindset.

Aside from all the literal gleaning that is documented in The Gleaners and I, Varda also takes a keen interest in the figurative act of gleaning—the retention of certain moments and meanings in the consciousness.  The original French title of the film (Les Gleneurs et La Glaneuse) indicates that Varda sees herself as a gleaner of sorts, and a personal documentary shaded with such wacky humor and candid observations is nothing if not a collection of gleanings.  In arguably one of the most hilariously inventive sequences in contemporary cinema, Varda shares with us some footage that came about unexpectedly.  While in a field during the making of the film, the petite glaneuse let her camera hang by her side, mistakenly under the impression that the camera was turned off when in fact it was recording.  What resulted is the unbeatable “dance of the lens cap.”  The lens cap, unscrewed from its better-half, bobs sassily in and out of the frame as the camera is absent-mindedly pointed down toward the grass.  Smooth jazz is added to the number, with the occasional cymbal crash punctuating the most raucous swings of the coquettish lens.  Varda, the able-minded gleaner that she is, saw the beauty in these unwittingly captured moments (moments that many a filmmaker would have discarded without pause) and put them to good use.

This playfulness comes and goes throughout The Gleaners and I, and is often ambiguously intermingled with Varda’s more grave meditations on aging.  As Varda films the myriad semi-trucks she passes while on the highway, she extends her left hand—a wrinkled, well-worn hand—into the frame and tries to “catch” the oblong vehicles that fleet so quickly out of view.  “I’d like to capture them.  To retain things passing?  No, just to play,” she muses in voiceover.  This is not the first time in the film that Varda’s hand makes an appearance.  In an earlier sequence, while rifling through souvenirs she acquired while in Japan, the director lets her camera drift from the souvenirs to the coarsely textured landscape of her hand.  As the camera roams hesitantly in close-up over the lines and age spots of her skin, Varda admits that to simply film one hand with the other is the goal of her documentary—and also a horror.  Varda’s fearful fascination with her weathered hand seems to be akin to her insistence throughout The Gleaners and I of filming abandoned produce, and the people who believe the produce still to have value.  The question of expiration dates (sometimes deceptive, sometimes not) is returned to again and again.  For Varda, this question proves important and discomforting, the formidable backdrop against which the world’s gleaners are silhouetted.