There have been many films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) to Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), devoted to the challenge of capturing or reconstituting the experience of “real time.” Agnès Varda’s 1961 Cléo from 5 to 7—an account of an hour and a half in the life of a normally carefree young woman who is gravely awaiting a medical diagnosis—is one of them, but it dispenses with the single-camera-take concept that Hitchcock cleverly faked (and that Sokurov would heroically maintain); it is as jazzily photographed and busily edited as any more conventional narrative film. Rather, Varda seizes the kind of immediacy and tension associated, at the start of the sixties, with the cinema verité documentary movement and uses it to create a new form of fiction. Unlike traditional story films, which skip everywhere in both time and space, Varda gives us a gauntlet: every second piling up, every step traced out. And she picked the best possible site for this gauntlet walk: the Left Bank of Paris is preserved for us in all its early sixties vibrancy and diversity. Indeed, Varda once described the film as “the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.”
It is a stunningly scrupulous, exact film, in space as well as in time—so much so that a viewer can draw a precise map of Cléo’s path and consider touristically re-creating her journey, down to the last second, in the Left Bank as it exists today. (Varda’s only cheat, in fact, is to have titled it Cléo from 5 to 7, rather than from 5:00 to 6:30.) But if the film were only a virtuosic formal exercise, or a cleverly choreographed stroll through a city, it would probably not have endured as the remarkable, affecting testament that it is. At least since her short L’opéra Mouffe (1958), Varda has devoted a large part of her art to conveying not just what the physical world looks and sounds like but how it feels, how we process it internally in our mind, body, and heart. That internal feeling then informs her presentation of the material world, subtly shaping it into something more than real––a very modern style of expressionism. And since L’opéra Mouffe is a mosaic of Parisian impressions filtered through the perception of a pregnant woman, Varda is declaring, early in her career, that gender matters in art and cinema, that men and women are likely to see and feel the same things very differently—a theme that follows through to her later films Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000), as well as to her installation Some Widows of Noirmoutier (2006).
It is easy to hail Varda as a pioneer of feminist cinema––a label she resists––but Cléo from 5 to 7 was, way before its time, already a complex “postfeminist” portrait of a woman. Cléo is, after all, no idealized archetype. As a central movie character, she is an unlikely, surprising choice. Cléo loves and suffers—and it is hard not to identify with her agonized wait for the medical word that will decide her future—but she’s also petulant, frivolous, vain, scatty. Varda deliberately gave her a “superficial” vocation as a pop singer, with a good deal of privilege (her older, presumably well-off lover wafts in and out without making any demands), and what, on any normal day, would count as a fairly whimsical set of errands and tasks (shopping, rehearsal, visits to friends). Here, as later in Le bonheur (1964) and Vagabond, Varda avoids easy sentimentality and deliberately blocks the path to immediately sympathizing with her heroine. Corinne Marchand, superb in the role of Cléo, at the time evoked the gamine Jean Seberg of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and anticipated the pop phenomenon of the yé-yé girl singers in France. But she may seem even more peculiarly modern to a twenty-first-century audience, a truly prophetic apparition: with her celebrity narcissism, and her taste for tarot readings and various other superstitions, Cléo could well be a Paris Hilton type, plugged into new-age fads (at one point, logically enough, Madonna was attached to a proposed remake). Like Federico Fellini at the time, Varda displayed a finely prescient sense for the rapid mutations in contemporary lifestyles; it is no surprise that she would go on to be one of the best documenters of the counterculture that kicked into gear by the late sixties—and that, thirty years later, would reassert itself in the social practices of “scavenging” so lovingly recorded in The Gleaners and I.
Because of its real-time structure, Cléo from 5 to 7 transforms what, in almost any other filmic context, would be mundane, or at least unspectacular, into drama. And, in doing so, it transforms Cléo herself from a distracted, self-obsessed entertainer into someone whose fate we fix on and care about. Her journey may be simple and straightforward on the geographic level––into cabs, through parks, stopping off at cafés and studios––but on the emotional level it gets deeper as it goes, accumulating reminders of mortality (such as the African masks she spies in a shopwindow) and stumbling upon unexpected epiphanies. In this way, the film traces an arc from the brittle, worldly wisdom offered by Cléo’s assistant, Angèle (Dominique Davray), to the soulful romanticism embodied by Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), a soldier on leave. The quiet energy that passes between Cléo and Antoine on a streetcar near the end of the story could well be Varda’s re-creation of the classic moment of love reborn between a husband and wife, traveling on a tramcar, in F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927)—a reminder of a film loved by the French critics of the fifties, those same cinephiles who would become the new wave.
Varda’s career has often been yoked to the part of the new wave centered on the directors associated with Cahiers du cinéma magazine. Her first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954), is widely regarded as the first film of that movement, predating by five years the splash made by François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and others. It is clear what her films share with those Right Bank, more mainstream new wavers: a breathtaking ability to swing in a moment from light to dark, comic to dramatic moods, and a taste for the handheld camera, capturing on-the-run scenes shot spontaneously in the streets of Paris. But Varda’s truer kinship was with the loose Left Bank group comprising herself, husband Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker, among others. Signs of the more radical Left Bank sensibility are everywhere in Cléo from 5 to 7, as in the radio-fed references to the conflict then raging in Algeria (which made Roger Tailleur, the film’s champion at Positif magazine, “fear in the darkness the probable presence of the censor”). More profoundly telling is the cubist-style, multiperspectival approach characteristic of the Left Bank filmmakers—the sense that it is not one person’s tale but a story that belongs to everyone who passes in and out of its frame. While respecting the strict time-space continuum of her premise, Varda in fact never ceases refracting her attention, racking focus on the lives, feelings, and perspectives of all others who cross Cléo’s path; hence the torch passes, often without a cut, to “Angèle from 5:18 to 5:25” or “Antoine from 6:12 to 6:15.”
Time is as much a theme in Cléo from 5 to 7 as a narrative or formal structure. The entire drama (and comedy) of the piece is based on the productive discrepancy between two very different sorts of time—the real clock time, passing second by second, with its end point of the news Cléo will receive from her doctor, and what Pascal Bonitzer once called the “passionate time” known best from suspense thrillers but common to all fiction film, the experience of time that contracts or expands according to how we feel it. Apprehension, boredom, desire—the film is a succession of these emotional states that, taken together, pose a countertime, a time of the heart. And this heart time swells in the course of the film, ultimately transcending the mundaneness––and the menace––of everyday entropy. It is a dialectic––the finite limits of the natural and biological world versus the infinity of the emotions and the imagination––that Varda would return to again and again, in such films as The Creatures (1966) and Kung-Fu Master (1987) and in the installation piece Zgougou’s Tomb (2006), which takes us from the grave of the filmmaker’s beloved cat to a literally cosmic view of the wider world and stars.
The most wonderful thing about Cléo from 5 to 7 is its air of freedom, evoked, paradoxically, within the very severe constraints of its real-time format, which must have posed a thousand challenges during shooting and postproduction. The film is superbly playful, poking occasional holes in its own carefully built illusion of cascading moments—such as when an early shot of Cléo descending stairs is repeated, in an editing loop, three times (an evident reference to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase), or when she disappears behind a paravent to reappear instantly in a new outfit. Rich color gives way to black and white after the credits, one of many reminders of the artifice of cinema. The potentially least attractive aspect of Cléo’s character, her propensity to act out at the drop of a hat, provides the film with its unique, modern register: this is, in a humorous, almost camp way, a histrionic film, lightly exaggerating itself at every turn—as, for instance, in the impossible proliferation of mirrors and reflective surfaces wherever Cléo finds herself, indoors or outdoors, and in the delightful silent-film-within-the-film pastiche featuring Godard, Anna Karina, and Jean-Claude Brialy (the trio had just worked together on A Woman Is a Woman). Cléo from 5 to 7 is also, in its sly way, a musical (shades, of course, of Demy’s work)—and no scene is more lyrical than the one in which Varda’s careful mise-en-scène transforms Cléo’s clowning around and casual run-through of “Sans toi” (Without You) with Bob (Michel Legrand, the film’s composer) and Plumitif (Serge Korber) into a full-out musical number, only to snap instantly back, at the end of the song, into the realism of the everyday.
Coming in the midst of the new wave, Cléo from 5 to 7 seemed to embody the prime obsession of all the young cinema movements of the sixties: to evoke the eternal present, flashing by in a sustained intensity. Like Godard or Jerzy Skolimowski or Glauber Rocha in that heady period, Varda eschews flashbacks and plunges us into the breathless present-tense unfolding of these precious ninety minutes in Cléo’s life. Yet, via the dialectic of real time and passionate time, the mundane and the hyperreal, Varda also creates a complex double focus, leaping (as Tailleur observed) from the here and now to eternity, to a cosmic vision. In the final moments of Cléo from 5 to 7, Cléo, even if her fate is not entirely decided or assured, is nonetheless released: into serenity, into love, and into a future that now seems possible beyond the second-to-second prison of clock-driven daily life. It is the kind of conceptual and emotional leap Varda would often make in her future work, and is still making: from the inscrutable problems of a marriage to the overarching, impossibly vibrant presence of the natural world of flowers and streams in Le bonheur; or in the very title of the autobiographical 2006 exhibition about her regular trips to Noirmoutier, L’île et elle, “The Island and Her,” a pun also evoking “him and her.” Gender roles may still be starkly dividing up the world that she shows us––a showbiz job for a woman and a military job for a man in Cléo from 5 to 7, the domestic indoors for women and the great outdoors for men in her multiscreen installation pieces—but the power and energy of the imagination can surge forth to abolish these divisions, and transcend the merely earthly in the fusion offered by love.