Agnès Varda's turn-of-the-century video essay/film diary The Gleaners and I, released on UK DVD for the first time this week, squirrels out multiple meanings from the phrase "picking things up". At its centre is the unfashionable pursuit of gleaning: the practice once undertaken by workers in agricultural communities, who roamed the fields after a harvest, appropriating the food left behind for their own use. (In Britain, of course, we had The Wombles, "making good use of the things that [they] find/Things that the everyday folks leave behind".) Varda's treatise is that there remains a certain noblesse and humanity in stooping to reclaim the fruits of the earth, and she finds the tradition alive and well in latter-day France - indeed, it's become more than ever radicalised, an act of defiance against the forces of industrialisation and globalisation. (The fruit and veg snaffled have slipped through some of the cracks Naomi Klein writes about.)
The Gleaners and I was ahead of the curve, in some respects, pipping to the post all those Noughties docs on the racket that is food production, and illustrating the sizeable amount of waste that goes on at both the point of picking (where potatoes and apples that don't fit a standardised description are tossed aside, however edible they might still be) and at the point of sale (with overly cautious best-before dates). That the farmers and companies involved don't want to sell these out- or under-sized comestibles is one ethical failing; that they'd rather leave them to moulder than allow them to be picked up and eaten by those earning considerably less than the average wage is quite another.
As such, the film forms an extension of Varda's interest in outcasts, whether those fruits and veg deemed unseemly or not up to snuff (she shoots the most loving close-ups of abandoned heartshaped potatoes) or the travelling communities trying to feed themselves by gleaning. We arrive at a very different sort of gleaning in the film's final section, however, as Varda encounters a young man living in sheltered accommodation who spends his mornings gleaning from bins and marketstalls, and his afternoons as a teacher giving immigrants the opportunity to pick up their first words of spoken French.
Behind the camera, Varda is aware that she herself is picking something up here: the new, lightweight digital technology, as roadtested in the Dogme films, yet here used as a tool to get closer to the people, the soil and, most crucially, herself: memorably, she shoots an extreme close-up of her own fingers, "one hand filming the other", a phrase in her narration that somehow ties in with the idea we should be better using our discarded products, our off-cuts, our spare time, to help our fellow man. For all the film's diverse lines of inquiry - and this may very well be your only chance to see a lawyer in full courtroom garb standing in a cabbage patch - it has an extraordinary thematic continuity. Both a wander and a wonder, The Gleaners and I may not be Varda's most rigorous work - she leaves in thirty seconds of unintentional lens-cap action, as if to demonstrate how human she is - but it sure counts among her loveliest: it's cinema that feels good for the soul.
The Gleaners and I is available through Artificial Eye from tomorrow.