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'Gleaners' is vibrant

Agnes Varda has been called the "grandmother" of modern French cinema, but "godmother" would be a better term, since age has nothing to do with it.

Although she's now an elder stateswoman of world film, she's been enchanting international audiences since her delicious "Cleo From 5 to 7" premiered in 1962.

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She interrupted her career for several years in the '90s, following the death of her filmmaker husband, Jacques Demy. But now she's back in a big way. Her new nonfiction movie, "The Gleaners and I," is arriving on US screens after debuting in the prestigious New York Film Festival and enjoying a remarkably long run in French theaters.

The movie's success is richly deserved. It was partly inspired by Francois Millet's painting "The Gleaners," which shows women gathering leftovers from a wheat field after a harvest.

Although this is one of the best-known images in all of French art, it gave Varda a very fresh idea: to explore the world of contemporary women and men who travel through life at their own pace and on their own terms, living off things the rest of us leave behind or throw away, from food to furniture.

Taking this notion one step further, Varda realized that she herself is a gleaner, using her camera to gather pictures of everyday life that go unnoticed by people living busy lives.

This explains the movie's original title, "Les Glaneurs and la glaneuse," identifying her as a member of the idiosyncratic society-outside-society that she set out to investigate. The film depicts a wide range of distinctive people, but we're steadily aware of Varda as the main character, analyzing and celebrating an aspect of modern life that movies rarely have the initiative or imagination to delve into.

Like many of Varda's movies, "The Gleaners and I" is at once a deceptively simple and vibrantly exciting achievement.

"The Gleaners and I" is having its US theatrical premiere as the opening attraction in a three-week retrospective called "The World of Agnes Varda" that continues through April 5 at the Film Forum in New York.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor