Sunday, 22 August 2010

Not Quite Stealing.

She has a bunch of César awards, a Golden Lion, has been up for a few Golden Bears and a Palme d'Or. But never an Oscar, though if my memory serves me correctly she was on a longlist a couple of years back. Who is it? Why, Agnès Varda of course! An influence and marginal precursor to the French New Wave and member of the Rive Gauche movement, married to Jacques Demy. One of only five people present at the burial of Jim Morrison in fair Paris.

Now, she is kind of old. Her hair is greying, her hands are wrinkling. But this doesn't stop her from making powerful films, such as her 2000 title The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse.) For those not in the know, gleaners are those who glean, who go through the detritus or the ignored, who wander into unexplored or public areas, who look where no one else has bothered to find things of value. This can be out of necessity for the poor (that homeless man rummaging in the bin for an empty aluminium can? Gleaning) or to obtain a culinary edge (René Redzepi of Copenhagen's Restaurant Noma famously 'forages' for foods - gleaning.) It can be for interest, for collection, or for environmental reasons - recycling the old rather than constructing the new.

Varda narrates her own journey into the world of gleaning, going through the French countryside and discovering the various people doing the various gleaning things they do. She looks at the laws surrounding gleaning, the people and companies who encourage gleaning, and those who go out of their way to stop it. But the most fascinating segment of the documentary involves her analysis of her own gleaning ways. Her view that, with her camera, whether making films or documentaries, she is gleaning from the reality of the world. She is gleaning moments, ideas, inspirations, beauty, horror, whatever. And it is a true and wondrous way of contemplating her own space within the world, as a leading filmmaker of the last fifty-odd years. It spins a whole different light on the actions of any artist - we're all just gleaning off someone else. That line of dialogue you overheard on the bus and is now in your novel? Gleaned. The framing of that shot reminiscent of that painting you saw in that gallery one time? Gleaned. In the same way that every story has been told before, every shot has been composed, every note played, every thought framed. And we're all just gleaning off each other, hoping to be able to form them into a new mould. Or a mould in a different shape, constructed, as it is, of many existing fragments.

It is this idea, rather than the interesting but otherwise somewhat bland notion of following a bunch of foragers, that makes Varda's film eminently watchable. Her constant parallels to her own activities, and her lack of compunction when it comes to scenes such as the dance of the lans cap (watch the film and you'll understand) show a bravery towards her own artistic tendencies and a belief in her own abilities, both to glean and create. The dancing lens cap, for example, can be said to owe a debt to Sam Mendes' dancing plastic bag in American Beauty - is its inclusion therefore gleaned? Or is it a lucky mistake?

Surprisingly, watching a seventy year old French woman roam the countryside is gripping and beautiful, much more than geriatric films generally are for those of a younger age. Varda brings her character and life to the forefront, gives us everything she has learnt (or gleaned), and teaches us something about each and every one of us. 5 stars.

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