Anne Friedberg essay,"The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flâneur/ Flaneuse" was written in 1993, while Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I was released in 2000, close to a decade later.
The crux of Friedberg's essay is the flâneur, a male who is "a model for an observer who follows a style of visuality different from the model of power and vision so frequently linked with modernity" (Friedberg). Drawing on oil paintings by Louis Beroud and Claude Monet, she describes this Parisian male who represents an idle, wandering man-about-town, a man of leisure, who has a gift of observing from within a scene as though apart from the scene. She relates the flâneur's "style of visuality" to new technologies in what she called the "panoptic system," specifically the diorama and the panorama in which enhanced images of spectacular scenes were enhanced for viewers even though the viewer was still separated from the true flânerie experience because the panoptics "did not physically mobilise the body, but provided virtual spatial and temporal mobility."
The significance Friedberg's essay is that she separates this mobile visuality from normal expressions of male "power and vision" while expanding the exclusively male role of flâneur to encompass the new mobility and relative freedom women discovered with the advent of "shopping malls, stores, arcades, exhibition halls, and public spaces, the visual merchandising of shop windows" (Esguerra). The female flânerie is the flâneuse and Beroud’s painting shows her as, finally, an equal participant in flânerie (the action of aimless, idle, leisurely watching) with the male flâneur. She can observe the scene and the exhibitions as well as he can, and she be part of the whole, even the wider world beyond the window, while being the observer of it, just as both Beroud and Monet represent the flâneur, in their oil paintings: Louis Beroud’s painting Central Dome of the World Fair in Paris 1889 (oil, 1890) and Claude Monet’s painting Boulevard de Capucines (oil, 1873).
Varda’s film relates to Friedberg's complex film in several ways. First is that it might be said that Varda uses her own panoptic system, that being her digital camera, which she lauds at the beginning of the film, calling it fantastic, narcissistic and hyper-realistic. She too uses an oil painting as her compass point, Jules Breton's Woman Gleaning. Of his many paintings of village gleaners, this one is of a single strong woman standing with a sheaf of wheat held upon her shoulder. It hangs in the art museum of the town of Arras. As a gleaner of stories and present-day histories, Varda herself might be considered a flâneuse who, like the woman in Beroud’s painting, stands within the group while the group-panoramic surrounds her with sights and experiences that are not her own. In a reversal of this, the gleaners are themselves lone individuals--in the past, gleaners worked in groups but now glean alone--who in their own way silently watch as the panorama of different life within their own present-history surrounds them.