In the late harvest of her long career, 72 year old Agnès Varda, the diminutive old girl of the French New Wave, has produced surprising new bounty. Inspired by Jean François Millet's famous 19th century painting of women stooping in a wheat field to gather leftovers, The Gleaners and I is Varda's liberating, personal documentary assemblage of scavengers, collectors, and denizens of life's margins around Paris and around countryside France.
Some of them scrounge for food, others for reasons more mysterious, inspired, artistic, and personal: A hard luck man in a gypsy caravan, his life crumbled from drink, picks up potatoes; others specialize in apples, oysters, or grapes. Some strip copper from discarded television sets, others find what they're looking for in abandoned chairs and refrigerators. One person's junk, Varda understands with equanimity and humor, is another person's treasure.
''Gleaners'' feels delightfully organic, eccentrically rambling, the found artistic collage of a woman who herself loves to collect. Her voice over narration treats every man, woman, potato, and refrigerator with the kind of respect and interest that encourages even the wariest human subject to open up. (The refrigerators she opens herself; she also bites into sexy figs she picks from post harvest trees.) Yet the casual serendipity of the project, how Varda happens to meet up with this person or that, is in fact its own soft, autobiographical lesson in wisdom gleaned from age.
Experimenting with a small digital camera that delights her, Varda shoots the white roots of her own dyed hair, examines her wrinkled fingers with astonishment, and spends happy minutes in a car trying to ''catch'' a truck in her hand as she passes. She's also just as amazed at a dangling lens cap that makes its way into the frame, an accident she celebrates by seizing the mistake as an opportunity. Gleaners persuasively encourages us to embrace chance with similar enthusiasm.