Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I was another one that, for whatever reason, I found it difficult to get myself to start. I don’t really know why I was so hesitant; I enjoyed Varda’s fictional film Cleo from 5 to 7. I guess if it was for any reason, it would be because, reading up on the film and what it was about, I thought it would be very boring. It looked like it was shot with a simple camcorder (which it basically was), and aside from the merit of having the so-called “Grand Dame of the New Wave” behind it, there didn’t seem to be anything to this one; it just didn’t seem interesting. Well, having seen it now, I understand a little better why I thought the way I did; while this one does have some things going for it, it is largely what I thought it would be.
This documentary is as much about Varda as it is about the “gleaners” she follows, hence the title of the film. She opens with a dictionary or encyclopedic definition of gleaners: basically, those who pick through that which is left behind by others for sustenance. Trash pickers, post-harvest foragers; these are but a few examples of the umbrella term “gleaners” that Varda uses. But, again, it isn’t just about the gleaners; it is also about Varda’s relationship to them, how she lives her life compared to the gleaners, and how she may very well be able to call herself a gleaner of sorts as well. Right at the beginning, Varda makes allusion to the changing of the guard of film stock from celluloid to digital, by featuring a computer in her opening titles, as well as a short segment near the beginning of the film of Varda’s discovery of the benefits and strengths of the digital format that are offered to her in the making of this film in this day and age. It is both a contextualizing segment that basically explains why the film is shot the way it is shot, and an introduction to the half of the film that deals with Varda herself; both halves of the film are interesting in their own way, but it is mostly the shifting between the two that pushes the film forward. Varda keeps the film interesting by making sure the editing is very snappy; the film itself is quite thrifty as a result, and the running time comes in at under an hour and a half. She also holds interest through her pure cinematic eye for shot composition (as well as editing); Varda seems determined to show off the potential of this new digital format when it is placed in skillful hands, and indeed even the handheld shots seem to have an artistry about them. Once again, Varda’s photographic eye comes into play quite well here, though the film also unfortunately showcases the drawbacks of the early digital format as well, especially given that it is a documentary rather than a fiction film; thus, hyper-realism seems to be the easiest and only method of presentation, given the equipment Varda is using.
I won’t beat around the bush; for a documentary that isn’t even an hour and a half long, it feels a lot longer. By fifteen minutes in, I thought I was thirty minutes in, and from there, I couldn’t help but feel that the film was overstuffed; two hours of material crammed into around 80 minutes, which doesn’t exactly make for a speedy watch. Sure, you don’t kill a lot of time with it, but it really feels like you are, which is almost never a good thing with me. It is this that is largely why I’ve given the film the rating I did; that and the admittedly low production value, though Varda’s shot composition often makes up for this shortcoming. I went into the film slightly fearful that it would be too boring to hold my attention even through the short running time, and in ways, I ended up being right. I kept going with it until the end, but only out of a completionist’s sake; if I really didn’t need to keep going, I probably would’ve turned the film off, and that’s never a good thing to say about a film. This might be worth your time, but I’d still be really hesitant about giving this a wide recommendation.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10