First Person

The Gleaners and I and I

<em>The Gleaners and I </em>and I

At the end of February of 2020, I watched The Gleaners and I with my boyfriend at BAM. It was, I thought, an ordinary day. We bought tickets in advance because we knew the small theater’s screenings always sell out; I thought I would be cold inside, but I had my coat, so it was okay. It was the first Agnès Varda I’d ever seen, but I knew it was a favorite of my partner’s. Eleven days later, the city locked down.

In The Gleaners and I, Varda sets out to make a documentary about the lives of gleaners and scavengers she encounters in the cities and countryside of France. Along the way she gets pleasurably lost in the details. Scenes spin off scenes until the whole film is less a straightforward narrative than an accumulation of experiences. On a trip to visit a field where gleaners pick over potatoes that have been missed by the harvesting machine, Varda is invited to choose her own. “The heart, the heart, I want the heart,” Varda cries, reaching for a misshapen potato, its two halves bifurcated like the atria of a heart. There she discovers a pile of rejects: the oddly formed produce can’t be sold at the grocery store. Varda immediately films the potatoes up close with her handheld camera, recording unsteadily with one hand while gleaning heart-shaped potatoes with the other. Then she takes them home and films them again, the lens lingering over their mottled, thin-skinned surfaces.

Much of The Gleaners and I is shot with this same small handheld camera, the lens panning over surfaces, zooming in and out. The camera is “stroboscopic, narcissistic, hyperrealistic,” Varda intones. The imagery it captures becomes an ode to the specificity of what is seen and observed by an individual—it’s the polar opposite of hypnotic, bodiless drone footage. Watching Varda’s film, we ride along with her, seeing what she sees, hearing what she hears. As she makes sense of the world she witnesses, she passes it on to us, the audience, shaped by her singular perspective. “There is another woman gleaning in the film; it’s me,” she declares. The gleaners glean potatoes, apples, parsley, and oranges on the street. Like skimming cream off the top of milk—or perhaps surfing on a wave, emerging smoothly above the frothy sea—Varda gleans their stories, capturing them in lovingly compiled footage.

When I love someone, I eat what they eat. I sleep in their bed; I wear their clothes. I collect the detritus of our relationship, secreting it in corners of my apartment where I can see it all the time: scribbled notes, ticket stubs, a metal lapel clip from the museum in Mexico City. These things I’ve gleaned remind me that love exists and that I am loved.

In The Gleaners and I, there’s a moment where Varda arrives home from a trip abroad. “For me and my poor memory, returning from a journey, it’s what I have gleaned that tells me where I’ve been,” she narrates, over a montage of her pulling out souvenirs from an unzipped suitcase. Her keepsakes from Japan are lovably kitschy: postcards of Edo-period woodcuts, brightly colored loofahs, a fabric banner decorated with a maneki-neko for good luck. When I think of this moment, I want to tell Varda: Yes, I’m the same way. I’m forgetful too.

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