Agnès Varda is a veteran director who has recently acquired a new toy, a handheld digital camera, but what is she going to do with it? She has a documentary subject lined up which seems ideal, inspired by Jules Breton's famous painting Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners), which depicted the women stooped over in a field who would pick up the remnants of a days' harvest of the crops that the farmer and his workers had missed or believed were unsellable to their customers, yet could still be used by those scavengers who could not afford to purchase the best produce. But what Varda wishes to point out is that this practice has never gone away, and if anything it is becoming ever more widespread...
Varda was seventy-two when she made this film, a tiny budget effort that must have cost more on petrol than it did on batteries for that camera, and her age was obviously pressing on her, as if she felt an affinity with the stuff that was thrown away because at her advancing years she was feeling like that too. However, she continued to make films for years afterwards, mostly thanks to her way with telling a story that was not quite like anyone else; you hesitate to call her style quirky here - the less generous might describe it as distractingly self-obsessed - but there was a definite strong-willed marking out of how she wanted to tell the tales of these marginalised people she was interviewing.
So while she would interview those who sorted through the dumped potatoes at the edges of farms at the beginning of the movie, you could sense her warming to her subject and taking in more examples of basically what was the impoverished sifting through rubbish in the hope they could find something worth eating. And the thing was, they could find it too, no matter the disdain or opprobrium they would receive from the better off strata of society, such was the wastefulness of the consumerist availability of fresh food that did not see everything bought before its display date, therefore resulted in a huge amount of perfectly edible food that was simply chucked away needlessly.
It's not as if Varda was some enraged social crusader, indeed you had the impression she was as at home filming the back of her ageing hand or her cat companions as she was the people who made up her cast of characters. She was often distracted by parts of her own life, unable to prevent herself looking back on her years on this Earth and wondering how much longer she had left, this reflection either a welcome insight or an unwanted diversion from the more pressing matter she was bringing up about food. Even then, she would discover those who scavenged non-comestibles, such as machine parts or electronics, to repair and use in their homes, or more artistically those who used the detritus of modernity to create conceptual pieces, either as outsider art of a professional body of work.
A capricious air would win over most viewers, so though this was light in tone, it had a serious undercurrent about what is being left behind by society that could be useful is pressed into service in the right manner: and that could apply to all sorts of aspects. Varda leaves one of the most interesting folks she meets till last, the man who wanders through the market each morning and picks up any free fruit and veg he can find, literally eating it off the ground in some cases, seven or eight apples a day he says. He has a job selling newspapers, and volunteers to teach French for immigrants at night classes, and he seems to make the most impression on those who watch this, but then, so do sequences such as Varda pretending to "catch" the haulage trucks on her motorway jaunts with her hand (reminiscent of The Kids in the Hall, comedy fans), or her comparisons between her digital imagery (which doesn't look as good as she seems to think) and the self-portraits of the Old Masters. Music by Joanna Bruzdowicz and Isabelle Olivier.
Aka: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse
[This is available on the Agnès Varda Blu-ray 8-disc box set along with six other features, a selection of shorts and a wealth of other interview material with the director, one of the greatest woman filmmakers of all time.]