Tag: agnes varda

The Gleaners and I


The Gleaners and I (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Toward the end of Agnès Varda’s fascinating and compassionate documentary “The Gleaners and I,” we meet a man in the streets of Paris who visits outdoor markets to pick up thrown away food and eats them right there on the spot. He consumes about six to seven apples a day, is a vegetarian, and mindful of his health. Despite his lifestyle of sorting through the trash for food, he is not homeless; in fact, he is educated in Biology and possesses a Master’s degree. He makes a living selling street magazines, and he lives in a shelter that houses immigrants, many of whom are illiterate. So, he takes it upon himself to teach a class for his neighbors. They are taught how to read, write, and speak French—free of charge. This is only one of the many compelling persons in this entertaining and most educational film about second lives—of the people, including the director’s, and the objects they come into contact with.

To watch a Varda film is like being caressed with joyful surprises. In its opening minutes, the word “gleaner” is defined as “pickers,” “those who follow the harvest,” and for a while we go along with this definition as we visit all sorts of farms across France. In one farm, several tons of potatoes are discarded for being too small, too big, too misshapen, too hard—these, we are told, have no commercial value. And so the “odd” ones must be thrown away. I watched wide-eyed and jaw agape as mounds and mounds of potatoes sit on the ground, in the cold left to rot. Later, the poor—adults and children alike—come along to “pick” or “glean” these so-called trash so they and their families can have something to eat. It is not surprising that most of them eventually talk about sharing their harvests with their neighbors. These people are wired to think in a collective way. I wondered about the sorts of recipes they had back home. Sadly, Varda did not follow them for a taste.

The fearless and creative director takes her camera and swims with the potatoes, the grapes, the cabbages, the oysters, the people that society choose to ignore or forget about. She puts the camera so close to potatoes, for example, that we can appreciate the dirt sitting in between the grooves. By using the camera as a magnifying glass, she trains the audience to look at inanimate objects—food, refrigerators, televisions, clocks—from the perspective of what insights or stories these things can tell us. And so when the camera focuses on the people, we look at them through this lens, too. Clearly, Varda wishes for us to 1) understand and empathize with the poor and 2) to recognize our own privilege and acknowledge the waste we create. There is not a second where we feel lectured since her technique is so organic.

Eventually, a woman claims there is a difference between “gleaning” and “picking.” And so the movie evolves. We do not just look at fruits and vegetables. We look at kitchen appliances, electronics, and all sorts of knickknacks. We even get to meet people who take these broken, inedible things—scraps—and create art out of them. There is an older gentleman who loves dolls. His work is towering in a literal sense; his wife claims he is not “just” an artist. As curious as Varda is, at times she is wise in avoiding to ask, “What do you mean by that?” The reason is because there is beauty in the mystery; maybe it is more appropriate for us to provide answers instead of the subjects. In this way, we participate in what is being presented to us. I will not forget about the boot-donning man who has “a job, a salary, and social security number.” For more than ten years he has acquired his food from dumpsters. I loved that he gave us a non-answer (“a matter of ethics”) when asked why.

“Les gleaners et la glaneuse” shows that a hand-held digital camera can be employed and tell a thoroughly captivating story of pickers, psychoanalysts, teachers, lawyers, farmers. And even when Varda is just at home simply showing her hands and suspecting that “the end is near” due to the numerous brown spots on her skin, we watch spellbound because the person behind the camera is full of experience, wisdom, thoughts, and longings. She has a talent for placing whatever technology is in her hand so that we are inspired to look deeply and ask questions. And if there so happens to be no answer to our questions, we are motivated to extrapolate based on what we have seen, felt, imagined.

Faces Places


Faces Places (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda and muralist JR (a pseudonym) travel across rural France to paste enormous photographic portraits on various surfaces: a brick wall, a passageway of a factory, a water tower, a barn, a bunker, among others. Each portrait is meant to capture and reflect a particular place’s people and way of life. It is a beautiful documentary, so full of life and energy, humor, and truths, occasionally painful, about how we perceive people, how we interpret art, and how our relationship with our own selves change over the years. It is perhaps chance that Varda and JR, co-directors of “Faces Places,” cross paths and decide to work together, but it is no accident that their over fifty-year difference in age serves as the soul of the project.

It is the kind of picture that is certain to make the viewer feel good. For instance, one of the stops involves meeting a woman named Jeanine who is the sole resident along her street. The houses are meant to be destroyed eventually but she insists on staying not only because it is her home, it also her ancestors’. The village is made up of miner families, you see, and its strong history can be felt from the way people of all ages recall their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers coming home from an excruciating day at the mines. At first glance, it looks like any old place. The film has a way of peeling away the metaphorical surface by, ironically, putting photographs on literal surfaces. No word is necessary when members of the community look up to giant pictures and the camera captures their raw thoughts and emotions.

In nearly every destination the picture works like this. We learn about a farmer who owns a 2,000-acre farm… and he works by himself. We go inside of his tractor and appreciate the technology that allows him to accomplish the monumental task of taking care of his farm by himself on top of other contract work. At times the visit lasts only between five to ten minutes and within this time span we not only gather surprising information but also have an appreciation of the subject’s way of life. It is a work that loves people of all ages, not just their portraits. Look at the way the camera transfixes on old people’s faces. It forces us to look at their wrinkles, the bags under their eyes, and the experiences behind them. And then note how it captures the expressions of energetic youths as their giant photographs are printed from a truck. You can tell they have never seen anything like that before; for them it is magical.

The work, too, is not afraid to show truths about its subjects. With Varda, a lifelong photographer of both still and moving images, it shows she has an eye disease. She claims that images are blurry and they tend to move even when they actually aren’t. We observe her getting a check-up. With JR, it acknowledges how he grew up with old people which ties into his attitude toward them. Varda and JR share wonderful chemistry; they are so comfortable with one another that eventually there is a recurring request from Varda for JR to take off his sunglasses. He finds a way to avoid it nearly every time. It is a part of his costume, his disguise. Why is it that he feels the need to hide his name from the world? Is it solely due to an artistic choice or something else?

I found the picture to be most compelling when it deals with the topic of mortality. The recurring theme is memories and how each place is defined by those who inherited it. Yet the residents we meet do not give the impression that they are shackled by traditions or old beliefs. They are simply playing the hands they are given. A lot of them seem to be happy and willing to share their own stories. When asked about death, Varda’s response surprised me. Her quote (which I choose not to include here because I urge you to see the picture, if you’re even remotely interested in it) is my exact attitude about death. Ironically, for some reason, it made me feel less alone.

Vagabond


Vagabond (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Right from the opening frame of “Vagabond,” there is convincing puissance that writer-director Agnès Varda approaches her project from the perspective of a photographer—one that is interested in facts and natural beauty but less so when it comes the reason, or reasons, why such a thing is or was. This is most appropriate because the person we come to follow remains an enigma even though we are provided colorful impressions of her through the various personalities she comes across. Some of them kind, a select few cruel, and the majority, unsurprisingly, indifferent. Even when the subject’s frozen corpse is found in a ditch, it is impersonal, from how the investigation is conducted to how the body is lifted and carried away. It is an effective commentary, should one choose to see it this way, on how we, as a society, treat the homeless like trash.

Within ten minutes we learn that the corpse’s name was Mona. She is portrayed with magnetic energy by Sandrine Bonnaire and it is smart to play her as an individual who says more with silence, how she behaves, the manner in which she stares off into the distance when she is surrounded by literal walls than when she is exchanging words with another character. She may not be entirely likable but she is fascinating. We get the impression that Mona employs lies, especially during car rides, when another wishes to fish into her history or her plans for the future. Mona is someone who lives in the moment—for better or worse—and it is apparent she values her freedom above all else. But at what cost? Through beautiful images of the countryside, we are given opportunities to ponder over what it means to be free from her perspective including our own.

A hitchhiker, a camper, a lazy bum, a thief, a whore, a good lay—these are some of the words used or insinuated by people with whom Mona crosses paths. Adopting almost a documentary style, these folks look directly to camera and describe their initial thoughts of her, how their feelings changed (if they did), and whether they still think about her. It is underlined that these strangers are never provided the fact that Mona is now dead. It is a masterstroke because having done so might have adulterated such strong, polarizing opinions. It is clear that Varda values honesty above all.

One that stuck with me was a man who noticed Mona sitting around a fire but chose not to speak to her. He admits that, for some reason, he regrets not doing so. He recalls that she must have been cold because it is the dead of winter. It took me by surprise by how much I was moved by two people not interacting, especially given the context of how movies tend to move or entertain us through personalities touching each other. Varda captures this man’s regret with such clarity even though the interview takes only about five to ten seconds. Varda is that efficient when it comes to what she wants to communicate that every moment can feel like encountering a tidal wave.

I think the picture’s goal is to make us look at ourselves and how we treat others. Although Mona’s fate could have been changed—had a university professor put more thought into her decisions, or had an elitist agronomist relayed important information to somebody who desperately wanted to find Mona, or had Mona herself chosen to stay in the property of a former vagabond who kindly offered to give her land in exchange for a bit of help around the farm—the work is not interested in placing blame. It is simply interested in showing what was and what we choose to learn from it.