Agnès Varda's turn-of-the-century video essay The Gleaners and I squirrels out multiple meanings from the phrase "picking things up". At its centre is the ancient pursuit of gleaning: the practice once undertaken by workers in farm communities, who would roam the fields after a harvest, appropriating the food abandoned there 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 folk leave behind".) Varda's treatise is that there remains a certain noblesse and humility in stooping to reclaim the fruits of the earth, and to back it up, she finds the tradition alive and well in latter-day France - indeed, it's become more than ever radicalised, a defiant stand against the forces of industrialisation and globalisation. (The fruit and veg snaffled have slipped through some of the cracks Naomi Klein describes in No Logo.)
In some respects, then, Gleaners was ahead of the movie curve, pipping to the post all those Noughties docs on the racket that is modern food production, and exposing the heinous waste permitted at both the point of picking (where those potatoes and apples that don't fit a standardised description are discarded) and at the point of sale (where overly cautious best-before dates hold sway). That farmers and companies don't want to sell us these outsized and undersized fruits is one ethical failing; that they'd rather leave them behind to moulder than allow them to be picked up and eaten by those earning less than the average wage quite another. As such, the film forms an extension of Varda's ongoing interest in outcasts, whether those comestibles deemed unseemly or not up to snuff (she shoots loving close-ups of abandoned heart-shaped potatoes) or the travelling communities trying to feed themselves by gleaning. The film extends its definition of gleaning in its closing moments: here, Varda encounters a young man living in sheltered accommodation who spends his mornings raiding bins for sustenance, and his afternoons as a teacher, giving immigrants the opportunity to pick up their first words of spoken French. He takes away; he gives back.
Varda is herself picking something up - the new lightweight digital technology, as roadtested in the Dogme films, and here used as a tool to get closer to her subjects, the soil, and herself. Memorably, she shoots an extreme close-up of her fingers, "one hand filming the other", a phrase in her narration that somehow ties in with the overriding idea we should make better use of our discards, our off-cuts, our spare time, to better help our fellow man. For all the film's diverse lines of inquiry - and this may well be your only chance to see a lawyer in full courtroom garb standing in a cabbage patch - it has an extraordinary thematic continuity: nothing gets wasted. The Gleaners and I may not be Varda's most rigorous work - she leaves in thirty seconds' worth of footage accidentally obscured by a lens cap, just to demonstrate how human she really is - but it sure counts among her loveliest: a cinema that feels good for the soul.
The Gleaners and I is available on DVD through Artificial Eye, and to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.