During the false calm that descends between the announcement of Oscar nominations and the bad-TV night of their awards, the smug nominees are routinely re-released to a presumably eager public in order to boost box-office returns and build a swell of public opinion for their candidacy. Into this big-stakes arena this year ambled a little film, The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse), which launched its national release at New York’s Film Forum. Nothing could be further from the bombast of Oscar contenders. Its director, Agnès Varda, is a veteran whose first film (La Pointe Courte, shot in 1954 when she was 26) predates the French New Wave, a movement she soon joined; today, she’s its most tenacious and intrepid survivor.

The Film Forum has used the occasion to mount a retrospective of Varda’s films, made over fifty years with considerable charm, occasional sentimentality and, in hindsight, historical acuity. My favorite is her 1961 classic Cleo From Five to Seven, a prescient study of a young woman’s wait for test results to determine whether she has breast cancer. For a hint of Varda’s current interest, there’s her 1985 hit Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless drifter whose brushes with society disturb the surface but cannot save her life.

Vagabond and The Gleaners and I both explore society’s margins, but whereas Vagabond was an imaginative fiction, Varda’s new film has the indelible urgency of documentary. It explores the world of “gleaners,” by definition those people who harvest what others reject. In the countryside, that might mean potatoes too large or small for the market or grapes ripening in untended vineyards. In cities and towns, it’s a range of trash and discarded objects and leftover market produce, the kind of harvest derisively dismissed as “dumpster diving” on this side of the Atlantic.

No such judgment impedes Varda’s research, as she refuses to separate out those who glean for food to survive from those who simply glean for fun: She levels the gleaning field. Varda interviews professional artists who recycle detritus in their studios; inspired amateurs who construct Watts-like towers; rural poor who forage from trailers; urban poor who glean in trash bins; eccentrics who keep tabs on refuse-collection routes; even a celebrated chef who gleans herbs on the hillside. And there’s no shortage of ordinary country folk who glean, indulging in a “field day” after the official harvest is done, simply because their grandparents taught them to do so.

Varda has always been very much of her moment, so it comes as no surprise that her film about waste is economical of means: a digital production–shot with a Sony DV CAM DSR 300 and a Sony Mini DV DCR TRV 900 E, if you must know, given how quickly camera names are replacing genres as aesthetic signposts. More noteworthy than the equipment, however, is the response; The Gleaners and I has already spent more than eight months in French theaters. In addition to a clutch of festival awards, in February it was declared the best French film of 2000 by the French Union of Film Critics, which broke with tradition by not choosing a dramatic film.

Why has The Gleaners and I struck such a chord? I suspect it’s due in considerable part to Agnès Varda’s own presence. Her voice on the soundtrack supplies a kind of thinking motor to propel the audience along the literal roadways of the French countryside, like an erudite travel guide who sees past the surface. She appears frequently in front of the camera, too, interacting with her subjects and whimsically posing with a sheaf of wheat. There are times when she’s in front of and behind the camera simultaneously. Varda acknowledges her own habits of gleaning, too: souvenirs carried back from Japan or, well, the footage of this film.

American films about the homeless–Dark Days, for instance, last year’s chronicle of a subway-station encampment–tend to emphasize the distance between “us” and “them,” usually exoticizing their subjects into another species entirely. Varda tries for the opposite, throwing herself, on screen and soundtrack, into the breach. Indeed, the French title is an explicit recognition of this bond between director and subject, while its English translation creates a rupture. Such directorial presence is a violation, of course, of the “direct cinema” style of documentary that has so dominated US practice since the 1960s, but Varda aligns herself with the “essay film” tradition of French filmmakers like her old pal Chris Marker, or Latin Americans like Patricio Guzman. This kind of film essay, which Varda calls “cinécriture,” opens documentary up beyond the limited frame of the quotidian to allow space for analysis as well as emotion.

Varda provides back stories to grant a context to her subjects and their way of life. She also ingeniously and movingly illuminates their stories, enlisting history, poetry and even the Bible to justify the practice of gleaning. Consider Deuteronomy 24:19: “When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.”

To prove that French law agrees with Scripture, Varda shoots French attorneys in formal black robes. Clutching red volumes of the French Penal Code, they are incongruously posted in fields and on street corners. One traces the right of rural gleaning back to a 1554 statute, while another affirms the legality of urban scavenging, for “these objects cannot be stolen since they have no owner.” Nonetheless, Varda witnesses gleaning’s modern curtailment by property owners’ citing it as a violation of private property. Varda not only charts gleaning’s legal progression but, in one scene, tries to reverse it: She notifies a food kitchen of potatoes dumped into a field, then accompanies the group to “glean” hundreds of pounds to feed the poor.

Another personal touch is Varda’s emphasis on nineteenth-century French paintings that celebrate gleaning as a joyous activity: Jean-François Millet’s Les Glaneuses, Jules Breton’s La Glaneuse and Le Retour de Glaneuses, among others. One painting, Léon Lhermitte’s Les Glaneuses, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is tempting to imagine its becoming an emblem for a US pro-gleaning movement inspired by Varda’s film. With the Girl Scouts updating their image with hip new commercials, maybe they’ll consider instituting a merit badge in gleaning.

Since a few million folks are less likely to see The Gleaners and I than to plunk down hard cash for big-budget movies with platformed releases, perhaps the opportunity to comment on the Oscar nominations should not be, er, wasted. This is one of the better vintages, actually, with less wincing than usual. It’s a year in which Hollywood passed over many of its own shiny releases (What Women Want, Cast Away) for Best Picture and Best Director honors, in favor of films and directors who started out looking like independents–Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh–but ended up right where they wanted to be all along: at the helm of polished big-budget features (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Lee’s case, Traffic and Erin Brockovich in the case of Soderbergh’s double header).

Ang Lee has become the great synthesizer, capable of transforming most any genre from melodrama (Sense and Sensibility) to period action movie (Ride the Whirlwind) into a polished evocation of love lost, honor gained and times gone by. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he is happily claiming his success in melding romance with action (the same trick, by the way, James Cameron managed with Titanic). While a recent succession of articles, including one by Lee’s longtime collaborator James Schamus, have kept busy by arguing the film’s relative success or failure with Asian audiences, its triumph in the West is undisputed.

As for Soderbergh, he is less a synthesizer of genres than the expert devotee of just one: a clear-cut story stripped down to its formulaic essence, then deployed in a contemporary setting, all visceral, fast-paced and consequential. In effect, he’s retooled the traditional studio formula to fit contemporary themes, from sexual angst (sex, lies, and videotape) to modern corruption (The Limey) and law enforcement (Out of Sight, sort of). Soderbergh’s most appealing quirkiness is his recent emphasis on father-daughter ties, a zone of affection too often left out of movies.

Both Soderbergh and Lee happily place women in the middle of their films, making them central players even in stories that demand combat–with firearms or swordplay. Like all real Hollywood movies (and unlike indies, until recently), they also rely on star power to animate their scripts and draw audiences to the product. With ever-larger budgets, they’re drawing bigger names and more freedom in deploying them: In Lee’s case, the power to cast Asian stars speaking Mandarin instead of English; in Soderbergh’s, the ease of piling star upon star upon star.

Interestingly, the pre-awards commentary on this year’s nominations ranged beyond the usual movie writers. In the New York Times, pundit Neal Gabler claimed that the nominations of Gladiator and Traffic as Best Picture constituted a Hollywood endorsement of family values. His article’s location in the Week in Review section instead of Arts and Leisure signaled the paper’s attachment to his position.

Is he right? With crowd-pleasing spectacles like Gladiator, it’s best not to examine the narrative details–or sources–too closely. A cursory reading of history reveals that Marcus Aurelius doted on his son Commodus, who didn’t kill him but did succeed him, with eventually dire results. Historical texts note that leaving the throne to his son was the one feat for which Marcus Aurelius remains roundly criticized, and they further point out that Commodus was the first emperor “born in the purple.” Hmmm, a ruler who takes power thanks to Daddy but is not up to the task? Sounds uncannily relevant, but more to this nation-state than to any pro-family rhetoric.

Gabler left Erin Brockovich and Crouching Tiger off his family report card, wisely enough, since they don’t remotely fit his argument in their shared selection of crime-busters who have grander loyalties than mere blood ties. As for Traffic, well, family man and drug czar Michael Douglas does forsake power to try to “save” his daughter, but he’s a failure at both tasks. The film’s clearly marked hero is Benicio Del Toro, corrupt cop turned secret crusader. But family? The film’s whole point is that Del Toro has none. His cop does what he does (turn mole for the DEA) for the good of community. Traffic‘s final scene catches him relaxing his long-stoic features at last, as he happily watches kids play baseball on the diamond he’s made the DEA build in the Mexican town that drugs once ruled. Kids, yes; family, no.

As for the final Best Picture contender, Chocolat–the fluffy film that Miramax muscle and Juliette Binoche charm propelled onto the slate–it delivers the most resounding slap of all to the sanctity of the family. Binoche’s character, an all-knowing chocolatier who happens to be the daughter of a runaway wife and mother of an illegitimate girl, is the only force capable of healing the wounds wrought by church and family in a French provincial town. It’s too bad that Robert Nelson Jacobs’s screenplay (also nominated) removes the pro-witchcraft and anti-clerical message of the original novel, though it’s easy to imagine Miramax’s relief at avoiding Catholic rancor at the box office.

Family is an odd grid on which to try to place this year’s nominations, actually. Every category was filled with honorees playing outside its bounds. There’s Javier Bardem, for instance, in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, brilliantly embodying the spirit, and not incidentally the body, of the notorious Reinaldo Arenas. While he may have been a literary lion and martyr to a cause, Arenas was nobody’s idea of a family man. And Ellen Burstyn may indeed play a mother in Requiem for a Dream, but she and her son are hardly on the same page, once the drugs kick in, let alone in the same family unit. Pollock explains family so little that we never learn whether Ed Harris or Marcia Gay Harden, in their scenery-chewing roles as glorious geniuses, even had fathers: we see his monstrous mother and unhappy brothers without ever knowing the first thing about them, while she seems to have dropped from the sky ex utero.

The Gleaners and I did not make an appearance in the still-troubled Foreign Film section, where national politics still dominate the process. Happily, the directing debut of Agnès Jaoui, The Taste of Others, did. It’s not incidental that the French nominated a woman, for women directors have played a major role in the remarkable resurgence of the French cinema in recent years. Jaoui is an established actor and screenwriter i n France, not yet well-known in the United States. Other French women directors are, though: Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat, to name two recent favorites. Nor have French male directors been slacking: Olivier Assayas, Laurent Cantet and Bruno Dumont have attracted US fans, and Patrice Chéreau is likely to follow.

The events at the March 25 Oscar Awards won’t change the fact that French cinema will continue to demand our attention. Not since the days of the French New Wave have so many exciting films emerged from its industry, and not since the 1960s has it had so much to offer audiences in the way of rethinking our cinematic expectations. Nations go in and out of fashion, not just in terms of tourism or trade agreements but in their cinemas as well. France, it’s clear, is back.