Agnes’s Varda’s documentary, The Gleaners and I, finds treasure where most people see garbage. Using a handheld digital camera, the director scours France in search of gleaners, those harvesters of second-hand goods who find value in the stuff society throws away. Though such treasures often go unnoticed in the bustle of day-to-day life, Varda herself proves to have a gleaner’s eye when it comes to beauty.
By Varda’s own hand, we are shown how a pile of potatoes left by the harvesting machines becomes useful for hungry gleaners. Through Varda’s eyes, we see how passing a semi-truck on the highway can be the simplest of games. Thanks to Varda’s curiosity, a well-dressed man eating vegetable scraps off the street becomes an unlikely example of human kindness in one of Paris’ public housing units. Ever the skillful gleaner, Varda finds and shows us the value in things we might have missed.
The people and things Varda places in front of us are shown in a context of value. That which is not worth any money is still worth something to someone, Varda seems to suggest. A broken clock may seem useless, but to Varda, it is a superb find. She places the clock in front of the camera and takes a moment to ponder the beauty of this timepiece which has no hands and therefore does not mark the ticking away of the hours of her own life. This moment in the film is only one of many in which Varda wonders about her own value as an old woman. She zooms in on the wrinkles in her hand several times throughout the documentary, placing the ugliness of old age before us—yet another occasion to judge the value of something that often seems valueless.
The Gleaners and I presents a continuous stream of moments like this in which hidden objects of beauty are pulled from trash heaps, storage closets and back alleys to be shown in all their splendor before the camera. One of the most profoundly beautiful moments of the film comes in the final scene as Varda finds a magnificent painting of gleaners in a most unlikely place. The painting is Glaneuses, Champbeaudouin (or Glaneuses fuyant l’orage, Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm) by Pierre Edmond Hedouin (1852). Varda finds the piece in a storage room in the back of the museum, buried under stacks of paintings that rarely, if ever, see the light of day. Though the museum did not find Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm to be worth showing to the public, Varda takes this opportunity to reveal a great treasure. She asks the museum staff to help her pull it out of the museum reserves and into the open air where she can film it. The staff honors her request and holds the painting up as Varda zooms in. The wind causes the canvas to shimmer and shake, adding to the sense of storminess within the painting. In this final scene, the lesson about the contextuality of value is learned best. Outside the museum, Gleaners Fleeing Before the Storm takes on so much life and splendor that one wonders how such a beautiful thing could be overlooked.
We should have great confidence that Varda’s The Gleaners and I will not become merely another undiscovered museum piece stored away somewhere in the history of film. Avid and diligent film-watchers will most likely stumble upon the movie eventually (if they’re looking hard enough) among the stacks of videos in the store. And when they do, they too will understand the beauty, humor and joy that are often found in unlikely places.