Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, the first fully-achieved feature by the woman who would become the premiere female director of her generation, dazzled when it opened, and looks even more timely today in its tackling of the fashionable subject of female identity as a function of how women see and are seen by the world. Its appearance in 1962 signaled Varda’s participation in the collective burst of talent that made the early sixties one of the most exciting and creative periods the cinema has ever known. All the rejuvenating forces of French cinema were coalescing in a rapidfire succession of new names, new films, the “New Wave”: 1962 was the same year of husband Jacques Demy’s La Baie des anges, a year after Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, two years after Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and three after Claude Chabrol’s Les cousins and Les bonnes femmes. More than any of the others, one feels in Cléo the influential shadow of Godard (he actually appears in a film within the film) in the heady exhilaration at breaking narrative rules, in the use of hand-held camera, and in the featuring of Paris itself as a character in the film.
Varda didn’t share the film-buff (and theoretical Cahiers du cinéma) roots of Truffaut and Godard; rather, her background as a photojournalist, then documentarian, expresses itself in the styling of striking images upon which the rush of news-of-the-day events are constantly intruding. The story is of a woman, a spoiled pop singer named Cléo (Corinne Marchand) suddenly confronting cancer—and, what for her is even worse than death, the possibility of ugliness and disfigurement. Varda’s photojournalistic instincts are apparent in the way she turns Paris into a hall of mirrors—windows and faces that reflect the heroine back to herself. We follow as she wanders through different sections of the city in the two hours preceding a dreaded doctor’s appointment, where she will get her final test results. It is an odyssey that, like so many French films, is about the double delight of watching a beautiful woman against the backdrop of the most beautiful of cities, but it is also a spiritual journey from blindness to awareness, and from self- absorption to the possibility of love. In showing us a woman whose sense of self is formed not by inner desires and drives but by her need for approval in the eyes of others, Varda is confronting the vanity of a beautiful woman as well as her beauty.
In the first scene, the superstitious Cléo receives grim news from a fortune teller, with the figure of death appearing in the Tarot cards. The seer assures her the card can also mean transformation, but Cléo is not a woman who can deal with the idea of aging, maturing, or dying. As she leaves the apartment in shock, Varda uses jump cuts to fragment her descent on the staircase, a Duchamp-like cubist sequence that expresses her splintering sense of self. The same sense of disorientation is captured in the vérité camera that follows her through the crowded Parisian streets, often eliciting stares from passers-by. Cléo gazes at herself in store windows, meets a woman companion at a café, buys a hat, and returns with the friend to her apartment. On the trip home, their taxi is accosted by students noisily demonstrating; on the radio we hear news of the Algerian war, of Kennedy and Kruschev. The real world and the interventions of style are equally important to a director who is a fascinating and paradoxical blend of social consciousness and a hyper-aesthetic approach. Cléo’s apartment, a fairy-tale white-on-white lair with a canopied bed, is a stage setting for the singer as star of her at-home theatre. First she “receives” a briefly alighting lover, then her musicians (the composer is played by the film’s composer, Michel Legrand) who bring out a mischievous side to Cléo.
Bland and doll-like for the first portion of the film, she suddenly thrusts off the wig she has been wearing, becoming more human in the process. She asks to be alone, another significant step, as she goes off again into the streets. With this symbolic gesture, she becomes more inquisitive, more aware of the world outside her. She spends time with a woman friend, watches a jokey silent film, and in the Bois-de-Boulogne, encounters a chatty serviceman (Antoine Bourseiller) whose intellectual curiosity disarms her. He has no idea who she is, and in his engaging company, she is taken outside herself, gradually entering into a world of real human exchange.
In a lovely series of moments that echoes Murnau’s great streetcar scene in Sunrise, she and her soldier take a long bus ride through Paris on their way to the hospital.
The tension between a superficial high-gloss beauty and a dryer and deeper grounding in life marks all of Varda’s works, sometimes ambiguously as in Le Bonheur, sometimes fancifully as in Les Créatures. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, the feminist anthem and bonding picture, is perhaps her most political film, and—surprisingly for such an overt “message” movie— one of her most enduring, while Vagabond, the 1985 film starring Sandrine Bonnaire as an unrepentant drifter who refuses to present herself as a female object and eludes all claims of men and law, is the masterpiece toward which the remarkable Cléo from 5 to 7 points.
Through an arresting use of Paris as both visual centerpiece and reflection of a woman’s inner journey, Varda paints an enduring portrait of a woman’s evolution from a shallow and superstitious child-woman to a person who can feel and express shock and anguish and finally empathy. In the process, the director adroitly uses the camera’s addiction to beautiful women’s faces to subtly question the consequences of that fascination—on us, on them.
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