“Existence isn’t a solitary matter,” says the shepherd to the wanderer in Agnès Varda’s 1985 film, Vagabond. This vision of collectivity, the belief that we are all in it together, recurs throughout Varda’s films, from her early, proto–New Wave La Pointe Courte (1954) to her acclaimed Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) to her most recent film, Faces Places (2017), made in collaboration with the young French street artist JR. (Filmmaking isn’t a solitary matter, either.) “This movie is about togetherness,” she told New York Magazine. Watching Faces Places, I couldn’t help thinking about Varda’s 2000 film, The Gleaners & I. Both are road-trip movies in which Varda interviews the kinds of people we don’t often see in movies—farmers, miners, dockworkers, and their wives. Both films proceed by chance, gleaning whatever they happen upon. But though The Gleaners is now seventeen years old, old enough to drive a car and almost old enough to vote, it’s feeling as fresh and relevant as if it had been made in parallel to Faces Places. It rewards rewatching.
The Gleaners & I is a documentary about the time-honored act of gathering what other people have abandoned or thrown away. Gleaning is most often associated with what’s been left behind after a harvest; think of that famous Millet painting, The Gleaners (1857), which you can find in the Musée d’Orsay. The women—gleaners used to be mainly women—bend over to collect the bits of wheat the harvesters have left on the ground; they gather what they find in their aprons. It looks like back-breaking work. “It’s always the same humble gesture,” Varda comments in voice-over: to stoop, to glean.
Today, they tell Varda, harvesting is more efficient because it’s done by machines, leaving less for gleaners to pick up. In her film, Varda interviews present-day glâneurs; some glean to survive, some out of principle (“Salvaging is a matter of ethics with me,” says a man who’s eaten mostly garbage for ten years), others just for fun. One woman Varda interviews demonstrates how they used to do it: with a sweeping extension of her torso she gathers ears of corn into her apron. It was a social occasion, when all the women in the neighborhood would get together and, afterward, go back to the house for a coffee and a laugh.
Varda enlarges the concept of the glâneur to include people like the artist Louis Pons, whose work is assembled from trash, from forgotten things, from pens, empty spools, wires, cans, cages, bits of boats, cars, musical instruments: “He composes,” Varda says, “with chance.” Or to Bodan Litnianski, the Ukrainian retired brickmason-turned-artist who built his house (which he calls “Le palais idéal”) from scraps he found in dumps—dolls, many dolls, and toy trucks and trains and hoses and baskets and plastic fronds—effectively brickmasoned into place. “C’est solide, eh.” Litnianski died in 2005, but there’s a corresponding figure in Faces Places who made me sit up in recognition.
All of the gleaners Varda speaks with are appalled at the amount of waste our culture produces—especially food waste. “People are so stupid!” says a gleaner who strides around his village in Wellies, going through the garbage for food, freegan-style. “They see an expiration date and think, Oh I mustn’t eat that, I’ll get sick! I’ve been eating garbage for ten years and I’ve never been sick.” Back in Paris, Varda interviews people who come around after the market’s been through, to save money. “You should see what they get rid of,” one says. “Fruit … vegetables … cheese, but that’s rare.” His entire diet, it seems, comes from eating the castoffs from the market and the boulangeries. Varda, intrigued by him, follows him back to the shelter where he lives and volunteers as a French teacher to immigrants.
The urban gleaner has often gone by another name: the chiffonnier, or rag picker. Until the 1960s, you could still hear his cry in the streets of Paris: “chiiiiiiiiiffonnier!” Baudelaire, in Les fleurs du mal, sees them “bent under piles of rubbish, jumbled scrap,” collecting “the dregs that monster Paris vomits up.” The rag picker moves through the city on foot, like the flaneur, collecting what it has cast off. Other cities have long had this tradition—the raddi-wallah in India, for instance (which can refer to both the scrap collector or the place where the scraps are brought). In Paris, the chiffonniers, like self-employed sanitation workers, went through the trash, separating out what was useful from what was not, collecting rags, rabbit skins, bits of metal, scraps of paper, bones, glass, yarn, fabric, old clothes, all manner of chemical compounds, anything that could be repurposed, reused, repackaged, or transformed into something else. “Very little went to waste, in Baudelaire’s Paris,” notes the scholar Antoine Compagnon in his recent book on the chiffonnier. Georges Lacombe’s 1928 short silent film, La zone, shows the process of rag picking and what happens to the detritus they collect. They would drag this in bags or in wheelbarrows to a collection point, of which there were many in the city; the rue Mouffetard, on the Left Bank, was the center of this reselling (side note: Varda made a short film about this street, 1958’s Opera Mouffe). The metal, of course, would be taken to factories where it was melted down and turned into other things made of metal. How many lives has metal had, how many shapes has it taken? How many more lives does any object have before it eventually finds its way to some landfill?
Today, this canny recycling spirit lives on in the brocantes, which you can find around town on any weekend afternoon. In among the real antique dealers, you can find people selling all the bits and bobs of things they don’t want or they found in their basements, laid out on tables or blankets. They are “objets that can be found nowhere else: old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, almost perverse,” as André Breton writes in Nadja, visiting the flea market at Clignancourt. How many different people have made use of the same cast-off calculator, the little porcelain dish, the copy of a minor album by Renaud?
The threat to the environment posed by waste is incredibly pressing; the need to recycle is a question of ethics. If we must consume, let us consume each other’s castoffs. “All these old things,” Baudelaire noticed back in 1857, “have a moral value.” This is the ethos of The Gleaners. Yet it’s difficult to watch the film at times, to be reminded that others are living off what some of us throw away so carelessly, something Varda’s literary kindred spirit, Virginie Despentes, has also managed to do in her recent masterpiece, Vernon Subutex. But neither Varda nor Despentes sentimentalizes this cycle; the gleaners Varda interviews are gleeful. If there’s anyone to pity here, it’s us, paying retail, paying anything: we’re the suckers. Varda helps us see the hyperactive cycle of our materialism and, through the act of glanage, shows us a way to consume less and to engage with our environments more.
Before I watched the film, my suburban ways clung to me. Everything had to be new, of course. I’d never gotten out of the car to pick up some apples from the ground, or brought in a piece of furniture from the street. (I think of Patti Smith in Just Kids, scrubbing with baking soda the mattress she and Robert Mapplethorpe found in the street. She had that pluck and resourcefulness.) Even after it, I’m not sure I would go rummaging through the garbage after the market had finished. But Varda helped me see myself as not only a consumer but a participant in some greater cycle of custodianship. As Varda films people recuperating the copper coils from inside television sets that have been abandoned, or finding old refrigerators and repairing them, or turning them into very chic bookshelves, she seems to be asking us not to limit ourselves to accepting products as they’re offered to us commercially but that we take them apart, turn them into other things, that we imagine new uses for them, even, and especially, when they seem to be useless.
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. She lives in Paris.