Agnès Varda Combs France, Armed With a Digital Camera

Agnès Varda’s The

Gleaners and I belongs to that genre of nonfiction film in which the French

excel: the first-person philosophical essay. Ms. Varda has been a gleaner all

throughout her 46-year career in film, in the sense that she’s been collecting

or discovering (facts, information, etc.) gradually, bit by bit. What she

collects in The Gleaner and I are

glimpses of a world we normally see-if at all-out of the corners of our eyes as

we pass garbage cans and other receptacles of waste disposal. The creatures we

notice foraging and rummaging are not considered worth our extended attention,

but Ms. Varda stops, lets her camera and microphone record the scene, and then

pauses to discover what fragments of life stories her fellow gleaners can tell

her. The film is her contemplation of the modern descendants of Jean-François

Millet’s classic peasant women, stooped over to gather leftover grain after the

harvest has been completed. It is

not a litany of hard-luck stories that Ms. Varda is after, nor facile

propaganda for social and economic justice. She respects the dignity, privacy

and individuality of her subjects too much to wail in monotonous sympathy.

Still, her lack of squeamishness, snobbery and pious

fastidiousness is a welcome relief from the dismal news from Washington of a

plutocracy in the making, one in which banks and credit-card companies may

demand the return of debtor’s prisons to punish the victims of their usurious

interest rates and high-pressure salesmanship. In this atmosphere of ravenous

greed, Ms. Varda’s unabashed populism may explain, at least in part, the recent

surprise selection by the French Union of Film Critics of The Gleaners and I as the winner of the Méliès prize for Best

French Film of 2000, an award that is usually presented to fiction films. And

on Feb. 24, Ms. Varda received the César

d’Honneur (the French equivalent of the Academy Award) for her lifetime

achievement in film.

Indeed, The Gleaners

and I can thus be viewed as the climax and culmination of an

anything-but-orderly career that leaves behind almost as many unfinished

projects as finished ones. Many of her collaborations were with her late

husband, Jacques Demy (1931-90), with whom she shared a whimsical spirit and a

social conscience. The one time I saw them in Paris together, they were rushing

off to their voting place to cast their ballots for the socialist ticket. Of

her latest work, Ms. Varda notes: “This film is a documentary woven from

various strands: from emotions I felt when confronted with precariousness; from

the possibilities offered by the new small digital cameras; and from the desire

to film what I can see of myself-my aging hands and my gray hair. I also wanted

to express my love for painting. I had to piece it together and make sense out

of it all in the film, without betraying the social issue that I had set out to

address-waste and trash: who finds a use for it? How? Can one live on the

leftovers of others?

“I first had to investigate the rural world (gleaning and

picking), and then the urban world (salvaging), and I permitted myself only

digressions indirectly related to the topic. This is why this film includes a

wine grower who descends from the extraordinary Etienne-Jules Marey, the owner

of a vintage winery who is also a psychotherapist; the anecdote of a couple who

run a cafe; and a class for illiterate adults.”

Ms. Varda never attempts to conceal her whimsical, at times

morbid subjectivity with the pseudo-objectivity of her medium and her genre.

When her car is stopped by a flock of sheep, she interprets the interruption

serendipitously as a new opportunity rather than as an obstruction. She thus

not only stops to smell the roses; she points her camera at them as well. She

pauses also to appreciate paintings of her subjects by Jean-François Millet,

Jules Breton, Hugo Salmson, Pierre Edmond Hedouin and others. This double

sensitivity, to paint on canvas and flesh-and-blood contemporaneity, ennobles

some of the most humble members of her society by contextualizing them in an

artistic and social tradition.

Of course, we are in the historically thrifty land most of

us have identified since childhood with the piece of string in the poignant

story by Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), not to mention L’Avare ( The Miser ) by

Molière (1622-73). Nonetheless, Americans should find Ms. Varda’s film essay a

sobering reminder of all the food that is wasted here when people around the

world are going hungry. Economists patiently explain that this is the price we

must pay for all the beauties of free-market capitalism. By putting faces, names

and voices on the French gleaners, rural and urban, Ms. Varda encourages us to

cultivate more humane attitudes to the outsiders and losers in our midst. And

don’t miss The World of Agnès Varda ,

the three-week retrospective of Ms. Varda’s work running through April 5 at

Film Forum. She has fashioned her own genre with wit, humor and the deepest

feelings, and this includes both her fiction and nonfiction films.

A Weak Love Story to Sell a Gritty War Movie

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy

at the Gates , from a screenplay by Alain Godard and Mr. Annaud, reminds me

of an old 30’s Hokinson cartoon in The

New Yorker in which a dowager at her club introduces a guest speaker with

the tactful admonition, “Mr. Smith will tell us a little bit, but not too much,

about the horror in Spain.”

The Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 was perhaps the bloodiest

and most bitterly fought battle in human history, but it has been largely

reduced in scope here to a cat-and-mouse duel between Soviet sharpshooter

Vassili (Jude Law) and his Nazi counterpart, Major Konig (Ed Harris). I have

not researched the battle sufficiently to swear that nothing like this ever

happened, but it feels too miniaturized and too medievalized for my taste

nonetheless.

Still, the film may serve a useful educational purpose in

alerting the kids to the fact that the Battle of Stalingrad actually took

place, and that it marked a pivotal moment in the final outcome of World War

II. With a super-production Pearl Harbor

looming on the horizon and D-Day already celebrated by Steven Spielberg and Tom

Hanks, it may be useful at this time to remind young American viewers that the

Russians had a great deal to do with the defeat of Hitler.

Though the duel between Mr. Law’s Vassili and Mr. Harris’

Major Konig is the action highlight of Enemy

at the Gates , the publicity photos for the film stress Vassili’s

cheek-to-jowl confrontation with top-billed Joseph Fiennes, who plays Danilov,

a Soviet press commissar. Danilov makes Vassili a national hero with artful

pictures and prose about the latter’s prowess. Danilov is encouraged in his

puffery by the comically rendered big cheese, Commissar Khrushchev (Bob

Hoskins, who did a zesty Beria a while back). So what does the confrontational

publicity pose of Mr. Fiennes and Mr. Law have to do with the plot? Well, it

seems both men are in love with the same woman, multilingual, well-educated

Tania (Rachel Weisz), a Russian soldier who wishes to avenge the loss of her

family in the Holocaust. Since Danilov is also Jewish and already has a mother

in Palestine, he would seem to have the inside track with Tania over the

ill-educated gentile Vassili-but unfortunately for Danilov, chemistry prevails

over ethnicity and religion once Tania and Vassili exchange more than a few

glances at each other.

Since I lived through World War II and all the movies of

that period and later, I can recognize the problems Mr. Annaud and Mr. Godard

had with the material “inspired” by the books Enemy at the Gates by William Craig and Vendetta by Derek Lambert. How can you publicize a love triangle in

the middle of the Battle for Stalingrad? The only thing that would make Danilov

and Vassili glare at each other would be Tania, so where is Ms. Weisz in the

publicity? The old Hollywood war-movie publicity departments would never treat

female love interests so shabbily in the poster art. The conventional wisdom

nowadays is that women will patronize buddy-buddy war movies if the men are

hunky enough. One can argue that the love story in Enemy at the Gates is ultimately so tepid that it is resolved at

the end with a long shot that reminds us of the collectivity of the spectacle.

But then another question arises about this film’s tell-tale

publicity art. Since Mr. Law’s Vassili and Mr. Harris’ Major Konig are the

prime antagonists, why not show them in adjacent shots attired in full battle

dress, with telescopic sights attached to their rifles? No, I am not

auditioning for a publicity director’s job, but I have become fascinated by the

thinking-or lack of same-that goes into ad campaigns. Mr. Law and Mr. Fiennes

have had much stronger vehicles in the past, but why are they considered “hot”

in tandem? That Mr. Harris has much the best part, and gives the most elegant

performance, is hardly surprising. Ever since John Milton’s Paradise Lost , Satan has always gotten

the best lines.

Mr. Annaud and Mr. Godard

can be credited with taking a stab at demystifying Stalin and Stalinism a

little more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of

innumerable statues of Lenin and Stalin. Here, Russian secret police shoot

retreating Russian soldiers facing almost certain annihilation at the hands of

the Germans. Still, one wonders what fate Tania faces from the anti-Semitic

Kremlin after the war. And what is never indicated in the film is the fateful

decision by Hitler to order the German commander, Field Marshal Friedrich von

Paulus, to hold his ground and not to retreat an inch-even though, by making a

short retreat to join a nearby German column, von Paulus could have avoided the

Russian encirclement that ultimately decided the battle. But grand strategy has

seldom sold movie tickets, though it remains to be seen if mano a mano gunfights will fare any better at the box office.

Still, Hitler and Stalin-these were the good old days?