The scavengers

Film - Jonathan Romney discovers the beauty of rubbish

The reputation of the Belgian-born film-maker Agnes Varda has rather suffered from a widespread definition of the term "Nouvelle Vague". One orthodoxy applies the term strictly to five studious men who passed through the portals of the cinephile's bible, Les Cahiers du Cinema, before making their own films - Chabrol, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer and Truffaut. As a result, a number of important and innovative contemporaries have been sidelined, if not actually forgotten - among them Alain Resnais, Varda and her husband, Jacques Demy. This week, London's Lux Cinema presents a Varda retrospective, under the title "Grandmother of the French Wave" - "grandmother", mark you, rather than the expected "godmother". The label does, I suppose, suggest that Varda is still alive and active, rather than hovering backstage in the theatre of history, and evokes a certain veteran's benevolence, together with the warmth an audience might feel for her. In fact, Varda has recently found a new audience that is extremely fond of her - her latest film, Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I), had significant box-office success in France last year, which was all the more unexpected because it is a digitally shot documentary.

Gleaners is a reminder of how personal Varda's work can be. In the past, she has been self-effacing: it has often been difficult to pin down the authorial persona in what was nevertheless very idiosyncratic work. She has been known for her studies of women, from Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962), to Vagabond (1985), via her most explicitly feminist statement, One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977). She has also looked closely at other people, notably in a portrait of Jane Birkin and in two films devoted to the memory of Jacques Demy and his work.

Gleaners, however, is as close to self-portraiture as Varda has come - even though, again, it is primarily about others and how they live. It is ostensibly a documentary about the tradition of gleaning - the rural practice of picking up the scraps after the harvest, as seen in a famous painting by Millet. Gleaning still takes place in France today, in different forms - for food, for fun or to take care of the environment. People salvage the misshapen potatoes abandoned in the fields, or pick up the grapes left to rot after the grand cru vineyards have all they need. One practice is called glanage, the other grappillage - that's how precise Varda's study is.

Other types of gleaning are closer to bricolage. There is the recycling of scrap for functional or artistic purposes, as in the flotsam recycled into artworks by such characters as the self-styled "retriever" VR2000 or the ancient creator of an "Ideal Palace" of dolls and debris. Then there's the gleaning that Varda herself practises as a film-maker. Around 45 years after her first feature, Varda has discovered a new burst of life by getting her hands on a digital camera. She is amazed what can be done with it - from assorted decorative effects to the serendipitous pleasure of forgetting to turn it off and accidentally filming the rhythmic bobbing of her lens cap.

Like her subjects, Varda is a scavenger, finding images, people, scraps of stories wherever they happen to be, and incorporating them into her digressive, apparently unstructured fabric. Gleaners, which is also a sort of road movie, is a "sentimental journey" in the Lawrence Sterne sense. This discursive, self-reflexive film somewhat resembles Wim Wenders's similar Handycam essay of 1989, Notebook on Cities and Clothes. There, however, musing on the ineffable mystique of Yohji Yamamoto's fashion design, Wenders was both being self-consciously philosophical and showing off his trendy new toy: the possibilities of hand-held digital were then still a shiny novelty. Varda, however, shooting in 2000, is simply using a handy tool, familiar to commercial and experimental film-makers as well as tourists; and in this film, Varda manages to be all of those at once.

Among the ordinary and extraordinary people whom Varda encounters are some who glean for pleasure and mental health, others who do it as an alternative to starving. A jovial pair of dustmen live largely on rejected scraps from the market; a rubber-booted and rather self-aggrandising eco-warrior claims to have lived entirely out of dustbins for 15 years, on principle. The great discovery Varda wants to impart is that gleaning is not only a living tradition, but a perfectly legal one: she enlists a lawyer to stand fully robed in the cabbage field and read out the relevant article of the Code Penal. And she stops to inform a group of gypsies camped by a bleak roadside that mountains of perfectly good potatoes are theirs for the taking.

In this sense, Varda's film is digital cinema as direct action - what the French call "une intervention", an enterprise that aims not only to portray the world, but also, through the immediacy of the video image, to change it. A different kind of directness is at stake when Varda's own world comes into the picture - when she films her hand playfully "grabbing" lorries on the motorway, rather like children's toys; when she contemplatively films the damp patches on her ceiling; or when, in a distinctly minor key, she studies her wrinkled hand and is painfully struck by her own mortality. Critics often postulate a Holy Grail of intimate cinema, in which the personal and the political make a perfect match; but usually, no one imagines that the result could be as entertaining and illuminating as it is here.

The Gleaners and I features in the Agnes Varda season at London's Lux Cinema (020 7684 0201), ending 28 January

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up