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Finding Value in a Harvest of Lives

Director Agnes Varda examines survival of all kinds in the documentary 'The Gleaners and I.'

April 01, 2001|KEVIN THOMAS | Kevin Thomas is a Times film writer

Agnes Varda was in high spirits when she arrived at Musso & Frank's in Hollywood for a dinner interview last month before the American Cinematheque's sneak preview at the Egyptian of "The Gleaners and I." The film is a beautiful, contemplative and remarkably resonant documentary that has been hailed as a high point in a rich and varied career.

Varda has long been credited with ushering in France's New Wave with her first feature, "La Pointe Courte" (1954), an acute yet subtle study of a disintegrating marriage. "Cleo From 5 to 7," 'Le Bonheur" 'One Sings, the Other Doesn't" and "Vagabond" are among the many films that followed, establishing her enduring international reputation as a filmmaker notable for her directness and economy, and for expressing compassion rigorously devoid of sentimentality. "The Gleaners and I" opens Friday in Los Angeles.

Since Musso & Frank's is virtually unchanged since Varda first visited it more than 35 years ago, to promote "Le Bonheur'-but without a word of the English she now commands-she was momentarily overcome by a wave of emotion. In the late '60s, Varda and her late husband, director Jacques Demy, lived in Los Angeles, where he made "The Model Shop" and she made "Lions Love." A decade later she returned for another extended stay, making "Murals Murals," a documentary on the city's famous wall paintings." Varda has returned to Los Angeles for the openings of almost all of her films and has many friends here.

"I have a big love for this city," she said in her familiar husky voice and emphatic manner. "I don't know why, maybe it's the distances you have to go from one place to another. In Paris everything seems so close by. I love downtown, I love to drive down Pico all the way to the ocean. You can do it in 40 minutes! It's like a paradise at the beach. It's a big thing in life to be by an ocean! I love places like Fairfax and Melrose, but I don't like Venice so much anymore."

For more than a decade, since Demy's death in 1989, Varda has devoted most of her energy to preserving his films, starting with his most famous, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." In 1990, she made "Jacquot de Nantes," evoking Demy's happy childhood and his discovery of cinema, and tracing the sources of inspiration for his films, glimpsed in clips. A restoration of "Umbrellas"companion film, "The Young Girls of Rochefort," followed-both featured the music of Michel Legrand and starred Catherine Deneuve-plus a documentary on its making.

Next up will be the documentary "The World of Jacques Demy," due for release by Winstar, which will also be re-releasing the long unavailable "Murals Murals" and an earlier Varda documentary, "Daguerreotypes." Varda's only film in the '90s not directly related to Demy was her fanciful, star-studded salute to the centennial of the movies, "One Hundred and One Nights" (1994), which the cinematheque played for a week but which was otherwise not released locally.

Gleaning is the ancient custom of allowing the impoverished to pick up leftover grains, vegetables or even grapes in vineyards, following their harvest. The practice captured Varda's imagination at a time when the precariousness of life was on her mind. In some parts of France, gleaning still goes on to a limited extent, and Varda could see in it a connection to today's homeless and destitute, who must become scavengers in order to survive. Varda found she wanted to comment on waste and trash in today's consumer society, express her love of painting-she shows us seven 19th century paintings depicting gleaners-and to experiment with the new small digital cameras.

She also wanted to see what she could see of herself in the life of these modern-day gleaners. The big question for her was this: Can one live on the leftovers of others? And there was a second implicit question explored in the film as well: Now that she has pretty much secured Demy's legacy, can she get on with her own life and career?

To that end, Varda and her small production team took off for rural France, shooting in many locales, and later Paris, for 29 days between September 1999 and April 2000 and working four to seven days at a stretch. Varda was alone, however, when she turned the camera on herself, revealing the gray roots of her signature dark-brown Dutch bob and her aging hands.

Varda's basic look-her quizzical eyes and upturned nose-remains. But at 72 she faces the ravages of time in her own face and hands squarely and crisply-typical for her. On the soundtrack, we hear her acknowledge that she's nearing the final portion of her life, but having stared down her mortality, she swiftly adds, "OK, fine. Now we have to be back on the road." (A New York journalist who left out the philosophical second part of her remark incurred her wrath.)

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