Scavengers Uncover a Mother Lode


A side-door entrance into the French character and economy, Agnès Varda’s eccentric and thoroughly winning The Gleaners and I is jam-packed with information, personalities, and affecting images, and its downbeat, slightly bedraggled air is perfectly married with its subject. Varda spent nearly a year touring France with a small crew and several tiny DV cameras, capturing the people who scavenge and salvage the food and objects left behind by others. Gleaning is protected by law in France, but the laws vary from province to province, from potato fields to oyster beds, and from private property to public space.

For some of the interviewees, gleaning is their only means of sustenance. Others, like the chef of a two-star restaurant or the painter whose work is collaged from found objects, glean out of frugality, ecological commitment, aesthetic beliefs, or an aversion to middlemen and conventional trade practices. If gleaning cuts across class lines, it doesn’t necessarily obliterate class differences. At one point, Varda wonders, skeptically, whether the privileged children who use recycled paper and plastic in their crafts class have ever shaken hands with their neighborhood garbage collectors.

In her travels, Varda visits a descendant of Etienne Jules Marey (the 19th-century photographer and pre-cinema experimenter), who keeps one of his great-great-grandfather’s “riflecameras” in his farmhouse basement, and Jean Laplanche, the psychoanalyst and writer, who looks after the gleaners in the vineyards he inherited from his father. While Laplanche shrinks into his chair with embarrassment, his wife of 50 years explains that she was analyzed by Lacan so she would better understand her husband’s work.

Tied together by Varda’s voice-over narration, the film allows all kinds of digressions from its central subject: whether individuals can sustain themselves on society’s discards and waste. Throughout, Varda likens her filmmaking to the gleaning of ideas and images from interior and exterior journeys. A woman in her early seventies working in a profession that is as youth-oriented and male-dominated as when her first feature, Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), made her the only female director of the New Wave, Varda is in some ways as marginal as most of her subjects. “I have the feeling that I’m an animal,” she comments over a close-up of her wrinkled hand, accidentally caught by her own camera. “Worse, an animal I do not know.”

The standout in this year’s “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” series is Chantal Akerman’s La Captive. Inspired by the fifth volume of Remembrance of Things Past, but more directly influenced by Vertigo and Buñuel’s oeuvre, the film is a contemporary surrealist masterpiece and Akerman’s most fully realized feature since Jeanne Dielman. Somber in tone but punctuated with hilariously absurd details, it has, from beginning to end, the quality and logic of a dream—or of a fantasy spun by the protagonist as he lies in bed, writing in his notebook à la Proust.

Simon (Stanislas Merhar), the writer, is a spoiled rich kid living in a luxuriously appointed Paris apartment with his elderly aunt and his girlfriend, Ariane (Sylvie Testud), whom he seems to have spirited away from her hip lesbian circle and whom he despairs of ever entirely knowing or possessing. Their nightly bedtime ritual involves Ariane feigning sleep while Simon rubs his pajama-clad body against her carefully covered ass until he comes. Akerman displaces passion from the somnambulist actors—onto landscapes almost submerged in blackness as seen from a speeding car, or onto the surging score (Schubert and Shostakovich). La Captive is one of the rare films where meaning is conveyed as much through sound as image. It’s also Akerman’s most despairing depiction of her recurrent theme: the impossible desire to merge the self with the other—always in her films a stand-in for the long-lost mother.

Symbiotic attachment is equally central to Jean-Pierre Denis’s Murderous Maids, which also stars Testud. Based on the real-life story of the Papin sisters, whose brutal murder of their employer and her daughter inspired Genet, de Beauvoir, and Chabrol among others, Denis’s film is a serviceable frame for Testud’s performance as the eldest sister, a depiction of madness that evokes pity and terror on a scale to satisfy Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Actors refer metaphorically to finding the spine of a character. Testud literalizes the metaphor, exchanging the flexible, catlike posture she brought to La Captive for a backbone rigid with repressed rage and desire.

A counterexample on the acting front, Arnaud Desplechin’s perplexing Esther Kahn is an English-language costume drama set in late-19th-century London. It stars Summer Phoenix as the eponymous heroine, who decides to escape the Jewish ghetto by going on the stage. Given her tight, shrill voice, clumsy posture, and blocked emotional responses, it’s inconceivable that she would have been allowed an entry to the English theater of that period. But not only is she accepted into a repertory company, she becomes its star. Desplechin devotees, myself among them, can spin this film (Cahiers du Cinema‘s favorite of 2000) in any number of ways. Could it be about the relationship between the art of acting and self-discovery through action in the larger existential sense? Is it a deliberate attempt to evoke the dearth of complex characters in contemporary film by creating a personage so unpleasant that we can’t help but pay attention to her? Is it about the unimportance of talent compared with the mulish desire to succeed? I’ve seen Esther Kahn twice, and I haven’t come to any conclusions, but I look forward to trying it again, if only for the scene in which Esther, in a paroxysm of stage fright, eats broken glass. That’s a moment of truth, even if she never manages to channel her dressing-room agony into her performance.

In a series unusually rich with depictions of young women, some of the most provocative occur in Philippe Faucon’s Samia, a small but passionate film about the struggle for autonomy by the teenage daughters of a traditional Algerian immigrant family, and Saint-Cyr, Patricia Mazuy’s costume drama about the wife of Louis XIV (a steely Isabelle Huppert), who founded a boarding school for the daughters of impoverished nobility. Mazuy, who directed the feverish coming-of-age piece Travolta and Me, seems a bit weighed down by the pomp and circumstance, but she points up the feminist contradictions in being a tool of church and state with intelligence and authority.

Amy Taubin’s review of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema,” Part 2