The Gleaners and I + La Jetée

France 2000/1962, 82/29 mins
Directors: Agnès Varda, Chris Marker

Agnès Varda describes The Gleaners and I as a ‘wandering road documentary’. While it covers some of the same ground as Vagabond – for instance, rural poverty and subsistence living – it returns to the start of her career in that it could be described as a fascinating digital updating of the nouvelle vague essay-documentary form.

The French verb glaner means ‘to glean’ and glaneurs were those who gathered the leftovers after a harvest. Represented in classical French painting by Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton – whose images Varda uses in her film – the venerable tradition is protected by a statute in the French Penal Code. Between September 1998 and April 1999 Varda filmed present-day gleaners in urban and rural France. The resulting film is a study of those living at the margins of French society. But it’s also a digressive self-portrait, a first-person documentary detour through the edges of consumer society and a discourse on rubbish whose lightness of touch and deft political approach have made it a surprise hit in France. ‘There are those who glean because they need to, those who do it because they are artists and others who do it because they enjoy it,’ Varda says. From rural caravan-dwellers who live out of refuse bins and waste dumps to bricolage artists who find material for their work in scrap, what Varda describes as ‘this same modest gesture of gleaning’ unites the gallery of people she encounters.

Call it recycling, salvaging or just getting by, in Varda’s examination this ‘modest gesture’ becomes complex and highly political. In one sequence a robed rural legal eagle consults his penal bible in a field full of cauliflowers and defines gleaning as picking up ‘that which others have thrown away or abandoned.’ ‘It’s a film about waste,’ Varda says. ‘I did a press conference in New York where someone very correctly observed that the film is also about the people who aren’t “pre-formatted”, the human equivalents of the potatoes that aren’t the right size for the supermarket shelves.’ (The film informs us that 25 tons of the 4,500 tons of potatoes harvested each season are dumped because they exceed the two- to four-inch diameter deemed marketable.) ‘What follows,’ Varda adds, ‘is the full-scale marginalisation of all manner of people.’

‘It’s not a harsh documentary,’ she insists. ‘It’s the treatment of reality that’s interesting, the way beauty is emphasised. It may be unfashionable to say so, but I like beauty. Though that might seem strange in a social documentary.’ Strange and possibly even risky in less adept hands. But one of the pleasures of Varda’s approach lies in the way it accommodates and even encourages digression. A visit to a vineyard reveals the owner to be a distant relative of Etienne Jules Marey, which allows Varda to include a short homage to the man she calls ‘the father of all filmmakers’. ‘There’s a liberty of tone that perhaps comes with age,’ she acknowledges. ‘This allowed me in making a social documentary not to hide the fact that I love paintings, or that I’m talking about myself as well as about others. Obviously incorporating Marey into a film about gleaning is difficult but that was one of the surprises. I allowed myself the freedom to discover such things. So I’m saying something about my journey in search of the gleaners as well.’

La glaneuse of the French title is Varda herself and ‘gleaning’ can also be applied to the way she approached her material – both its gathering and its assembly. And appropriately the film’s success in France – where it pulled in 43,000 Parisian spectators over the first nine weeks of its summer release and as late as November was still playing on four screens having attracted an audience of 70,000 – has owed less to traditional methods of distribution than to word-of-mouth. A film about gleaning that was itself gleaned by the public? Varda dismisses my overextended metaphor. The film wasn’t ‘gleaned’, she insists, but ‘loved’. ‘I’ve never in my entire career felt that people have loved a film of mine as much as this one. The numbers of people who’ve seen it, who’ve talked about it – they were our publicity because documentaries can’t afford much advertising. The Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie paid for three prints to go into small towns, even villages. Rural audiences may number only between 40 and 80, but that was the idea. When I worked as a photographer with Jean Villar at the Theatre Nationale Populaire after the war the idea wasn’t to reduce culture to the lowest common denominator, but to bring people something that was intelligent, concerned, unusual and generous. That’s what’s happened with this film.’
Chris Darke, Sight and Sound, January 2001

La Jetée is stunningly successful, a short story whose beauty packs a strong emotional charge. In this 29-minute film, which makes nonsense of the usual distinctions between short and feature, Chris Marker’s surface brilliance is replaced by a deeper visual imagination, the style and power of tragedy harnessed to a story of flawless simplicity.

To challenge logic through the paradox of time is not a simple matter. Marker has brought it off, thanks to an almost classical elegance, a perfect structuring and control of the film’s mechanism, and an intelligently unconventional handling of the science fiction element. The men of the future, for instance, are not three-eyed Martians with waving antennae, and the only extraordinary creatures – a touch of mischief, this – are the prehistoric animals in the museum. The fact that we are not confronted with a world with which we have no point of contact is one reason why La Jetée has the power to move us. The voyage to the future is summed up with rare discretion in a few shots, a network of abstract lines reminiscent of certain Henri Michaux sketches; and in its evocation of the future itself, the film is carefully imprecise, both realistic and unrealistic.

By electing to use stills to embody the terror and immobility of death, Marker prolongs the rigour of his conception. For the technique employed in this photo-novel is as original as it is perfect for its purpose. We are a long way from the roman-photo of the station bookstall where actors have been photographed in pre-arranged poses. Here, actors are frozen in motion, and paradoxically it is the freezing of the image which evokes the sense of life – halted but always on the point of movement. Only one image brings movement right into the frame, for six seconds: when the sleeping girl, surprised as she snuggles in bed while the birds twitter, blinks slowly as she wakens to smile at the man she loves. A defiance of logic, an exception to the rule, this is the one moment in the film when the convention of the frozen shot is broken: a stroke of genius whose beauty is intensified just because the moment is unique. In the next shot, the birds are now stuffed, and the girl once more motionless. This tiny flash of pleasure in living, the only one to elude surveillance, is all that the mind has been able to grasp of life.

Unlike Robbe-Grillet, who leaves one with the feeling that his characters are fixed for all eternity, Marker’s art in La Jetée is to intensify the impression of life, as a sculptor might. Moreover, the static quality of the images suggests the stratification of memory. To remember something is to halt time. And La Jetée is a film about time, the only escape route open to the survivors of the Third World War. So Marker has edited his work as a film of which he has kept only one twenty-fourth of each second, but with that fragment of time prolonged for as many seconds as he needs. Time is controlled at will, by the length allowed each frozen twenty-fourth of a second, with the normal techniques of speeding-up and slow motion relegated to the prop shop.

La Jetée surely proves once and for all that Marker must be numbered among the auteurs. His eye is fixed on the conjugation of time, on the mutation of man, for whom ‘… there is neither destiny nor ill-fate, only forces to overcome.’ ‘Soon darkness will cover those men who try to come to terms with the world, leaving the light to those who wish to change it.’ Observing man and history, observing the future as it matures in the present, Marker not only watches but wonders: perhaps, by contagion, he might conjure the same wonder in us.
Gilles Jacob, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1966

A photo-roman by: Chris Marker
Presented by: Argos-Films
With the participation of: Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.
Producer: Anatole Dauman *
Screenplay: Chris Marker *
Photography: Jean Chiabaud *
‘Micromatières’ by: Jean-Pierre Sudre
Still Images Assembly: Germano Facetti *
Special Effects: D.S.A.
Special Effects Operator: Cs Olaf
Special Effects Technician: Ledoux
Editor: Jean Ravel
Drawings: Duffort
Laboratory: LTC
Music by: Trevor Duncan
Music Performed by: Choeurs de la cathédrale St. Alexander
Music Publishers: Boosey & Hawkes, Disque Philips
Sound: SIMO (Paris)
Sound: Antoine Bonfanti *

Jean Négroni
Hélène Chatelain (the woman)
Davos Hanich (the man)
Jacques Ledoux (the experimenter)
André Heinrich
Jacques Branchu
Pierre Joffroy
Étienne Becker
Philbert Von Lifchitz
Ligia Borowczyk, Janine Klein (women from the future)
Bill Klein (man from the future)
Germano Faccetti

France 1962
29 mins



Director: Agnès Varda
©: Ciné-Tamaris
Production Company: Ciné-Tamaris
With the participation of: CNC – Centre national de la cinématographie, Canal+
With the support of: Procirep
Presented by: Ciné-Tamaris
Producer: Agnès Varda
Production Secretary: Anita Benoliel
Production Administrator: Jean-Marc Vignet
Commentary Writer: Agnès Varda
Collaborating Photographers: Stéphane Krausz, Didier Rouget, Didier Doussin, Pascale Sautelet,
Agnès Varda
Editors: Agnès Varda, Laurent Pineau
Assistant Editor: Laure-Alice Hervé
Post-production Assistant: Marina Loubet
Titles: Excalibur
Laboratory: GTC
Original Music: Joanna Bruzdowicz, François Wertheimer, Agnès Bredel, Richard Klugman
Sound: Emmanuel Soland
Sound Mixer: Nathalie Vidal
Sound Editors: Raphaël Sohier, Thaddée Bertrand
Foley: Nicolas Becker

France 2000©
82 mins

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The Leopard (Il gattopardo)
Sun 1 Jan 14:10; Thu 5 Jan 18:40; Fri 20 Jan 14:00
Sunset Boulevard
Sun 1 Jan 15:50; Fri 27 Jan 14:30; Mon 30 Jan 17:50
Sun 1 Jan 17:55 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI Curator); Sun 15 Jan 14:40; Mon 30 Jan 16:30 BFI IMAX
L’avventura (The Adventure)
Sun 1 Jan 18:05; Sun 22 Jan 15:20; Mon 30 Jan 20:15
Mon 2 Jan 13:40; Tue 31 Jan 17:40
The Red Shoes
Mon 2 Jan 13:50; Tue 24 Jan 18:05
Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West)
Mon 2 Jan 15:20; Sat 7 Jan 17:15; Sun 15 Jan 16:15 BFI IMAX
Get Out
Mon 2 Jan 18:40; Fri 6 Jan 17:50
Pierrot le Fou
Tue 3 Jan 18:10; Wed 4 Jan 20:30; Thu 19 Jan 20:30
My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
Tue 3 Jan 18:20; Sun 22 Jan 10:00 BFI IMAX;
Sat 28 Jan 13:40
A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé)
Tue 3 Jan 18:30; Sat 28 Jan 20:30
Black Girl (La Noire de…)
Tue 3 Jan 20:30; Thu 12 Jan 18:15 (+ intro)
Ugetsu Monogatari
Tue 3 Jan 20:50; Tue 17 Jan 20:30
Madame de…
Wed 4 Jan 14:30; Fri 20 Jan 18:10 (+ intro by Ruby McGuigan, Cultural Programme Manager)
Yi Yi (A One and a Two…)
Wed 4 Jan 18:40; Sun 22 Jan 14:00 (+ intro by Hyun Jin Cho, Film Programmer, BFI Festivals)
The Shining
Fri 6 Jan 20:10; Tue 10 Jan 20:10; Sat 21 Jan 20:30 BFI IMAX
Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
Sat 7 Jan 12:10; Sun 22 Jan 12:30 BFI IMAX
Tropical Malady (Sud pralad)
Sat 7 Jan 13:50; Mon 9 Jan 20:40
Histoire(s) du cinema
Sat 7 Jan 16:30
Blue Velvet
Sat 7 Jan 20:30; Fri 20 Jan 20:35; Tue 24 Jan 21:00 BFI IMAX
Sun 8 Jan 11:15; Sat 21 Jan 13:30
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau)
Sun 8 Jan 14:45; Sat 21 Jan 17:00
Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia)
Sun 8 Jan 18:20; Mon 23 Jan 14:30; Fri 27 Jan 20:50
Parasite (Gisaengchung)
Mon 9 Jan 17:50; Wed 18 Jan 17:30 BFI IMAX
The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) + La Jetée
Wed 11 Jan 20:30; Mon 23 Jan 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Thu 12 Jan 20:40; Sun 22 Jan 11:30
Chungking Express (Chung Him sam lam)
Thu 12 Jan 20:45; Tue 17 Jan 20:50; Sat 21 Jan 14:15
Modern Times
Fri 13 Jan 17:45; Sun 22 Jan 13:10
A Brighter Summer Day (Guling jie shaonian sha ren shijian)
Mon 16 Jan 18:30; Sat 28 Jan 16:00
Imitation of Life
Wed 18 Jan 20:30; Wed 25 Jan 14:30; Sun 29 Jan 12:30
The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena)
Thu 19 Jan 18:00; Sat 28 Jan 13:50
Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu)
Fri 20 Jan 17:45; Thu 26 Jan 17:50
Andrei Rublev
Thu 26 Jan 18:40; Sun 29 Jan 17:20

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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