I have no idea why this French documentary won so many awards when it was first released, and has shown up on so many lists since then. It’s not bad, it’s just not all that interesting and original.
Maybe it was original 13 years ago, I’m not sure. Even so, I’ve never been a fan of considering a film because it was the first to do something; that’s the realm of historians. As a fan and critic, I’m more interested in films that do something best. I can’t see that “The Gleaners and I” is doing anything best.
It’s about people on the edges of society. In rural France, it’s legal to come after the harvesters on a farm and pick through what remains; this can mean a great deal of produce either left over by mechanized harvesting processes or rejected by inspectors (potatoes that aren’t the right shape, etc.) It transitions to the city, where we spend some time with people who pick through trash looking for treasure, including one man, gainfully employed, who hasn’t bought groceries in more than a decade because he just eats what other people throw out. There are also oyster gleaners, who harvest around the edges of oyster farms after a big storm. And a group of young ruffians who vandalize a grocery store after the manager pours bleach all over the store’s food waste to keep them from gleaning from it. And people who clean the copper out of TV tubes and sell it. The list goes on and on.
Agnes Varda, the documentarian, intersperses these stories with reflections of her own, on how art is sometimes a process of gleaning, and on her own aging hands. There are lots of shots of driving down the highway, where Varda likes to squish the trucks they’re passing between her fingers (you’ve played that game, right?) She loves her new digital camera because it makes filming everything so easy – maybe too easy. One sequence, titled “the dance of the lens cap” consists solely of footage from a time she forgot to turn the camera off.
Is this necessary? Is this art? Is this wasteful? I guess those are the questions you’re supposed to ask while watching “The Gleaners and I.” It’s all fine, but I didn’t find it terribly compelling or memorable. But apparently I’m in the minority.
Verdict: Not Recommended