It is said in France that between the afternoon hours of five to seven, those are the magical hours that lovers first meet one another. And during these two hours of Agnes Varda’s film Cleo from 5 to 7, nothing can be further from the truth. (Even though technically the film is clocked in at only 90 minutes.) The beautiful Cleo (Corinne Marchand) is a vapid, self absorbed young pop singer who has yet found any real international fame, besides a few hit songs playing on the radio. During these two hours of Cleo's life the audience follows her though the city streets, cafes, her luxurious studio apartment and within fancy restaurants, as she is counting down the minutes and the seconds until she learns of the results of a test that will confirm whether or not she has cancer. Director Agnes Varda is looked at by many critics as the 'Godmother' of the French New Wave and yet besides her being a woman, it seems a little unfair to simply describe her like that. It seems most critics would use that term just as a way to distinguish her among her other male comrades like Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, Resnais, Chabrol and her husband Jacques Demy. And yet when watching several of her films again, her stories seem to be more modern, have much more zest and seem to remain fresh and innovative, while some of her counterparts work can tend to now be looked as a little dated. Unlike most of the new wave directors, Varda was trained not just as a filmmaker or a film critic, but as a photographer as well; which is quite obvious through Varda's extraordinary documentary-like cinematography. Varda described Cleo from 5 to 7 as simply "the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris."
In color: "Cut the deck please." A beautiful woman named Florence (Corinne Marchand) but people call her Cleo cuts the tarot cards and chooses 9 cards: three for the past, three for the present and three for the future. The Madame Irma tarot reader looks at Cleo's past saying that her young lover influenced her career of music with advice, and years later were taking in by a friend who introduced her to a kind generous man. When shuffling the tarot cards again, Irma points out that she sees suffering in Cleo's future. Irma asks Cleo, "Are you ill?" The shot when finally cutting to Cleo becomes black and white as Cleo confirms that she is ill.
Irma sees a new acquaintance, a young man she will meet who will amuse her. But she also sees her illness and how serious it is. The last card that is flipped looks like a 'death' card but Irma says, "It means a complete transformation of your whole being." Cleo starts to cry believing that the worst will happen and when she asks Irma to read her palm, Irma turns it down saying that she doesn't read palms. Irma reader begs Cleo to stop crying because if her other customers see this, they will think she is a sort of bad omen. Right when Cleo leaves Irma says to her husband, "The cards spelled death and I saw cancer. She is doomed."
Cleo de 17 h. 05 A 17 h. 08
After leaving the Madame Irma, Cleo stops to admire her beauty in a mirror thinking to herself, "Wait, pretty butterfly. Ugliness is a kind of death. AS long as I'm beautiful, I'm even more alive than the others." Cleo makes her way out on the street and as she walks down the city street the camera follows her as men she passes admire her beauty. She meets her assistant Angele at the cafe and Cleo lets her know of the bad news that Madame Irma had revealed to her saying that if she is really ill, she'll kill herself saying, "I might as well be dead already."
Angele de 17 h. 08 z 17 h. 13
Angele knows Cleo is still just a child and needs to be looked after as she does her best to comfort her. Men notice something is bothering Cleo and start approaching the table asking if Cleo is ok, offering her a coffee. While Cleo relaxes and has her coffee she overhears another couple arguing at the table next to her. Cleo and Angele leave and cross the busy streets as Cleo stops to admire hats at a window shop. "I want that one," Cleo says walking in asking to try on some hats.
Cleo de 17 h. 13 a 17 h. 18
Inside the store Cleo tries on a hat thinking to herself, "Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me!" While she tries on other hats the camera is shot outside on the street peering in as you can hear the faint sounds of the automobiles driving past and the people walking down the street. When finally making a purchase Cleo wants to wear her new gift that she bought herself, but Angele tells her to never wear anything new on a Tuesday. When the two leave and get into a cab Cleo is giddy like a school girl about her new hat that she purchased. While on the road a man drives beside them and whistles at her, but when she ignores him he calls her stuck up. When the taxi driver puts on the radio one of Cleo's songs is playing but Cleo doesn't like to hear her voice.
Angele de 17 h. 18 a 17 h. 25
When the taxi drives within an area that involves art students, the students all hang on the taxi acting mischievous. When the taxi driver changes the station and a news broadcast reports that 20 are dead and 60 wounded in the war with Algeria, Cleo isn't listening and instead is hoping they make it back home in time for her music rehearsal. When arriving home Cleo enters her luxurious apartment studio which features one large bed, a mirror and several kittens. Cleo stretches herself out with a few exercises on a large swing installed in her studio while being pampered by Angele until her rehearsal pianist and song writer arrive to rehearse with her.
Cleo de 17 h. 25 a 17 h. 31
Cleo's lover Jose quickly drops in first to give Cleo a kiss and Monsieur tells her how he wishes to see her more, but he unfortunately can't stay too long. Cleo tells him that she might be ill but Jose reassures her not to worry and that people’s minds are full of illnesses and heart trouble. After visiting her for a short time and leaving Cleo realizes the hat she earlier purchased has been delivered but she is down about her lover Jose.
Cleo tells Angele that Jose doesn't take her seriously and that she'd like to drop him. Angele believes Jose to be a good lover saying "He's in love. He respects you. He spoils you. He knows everyone in Paris. He's generous. You go together well." Cleo walks over onto her swing while Angele sits in a rocking chair. Cleo wishes she could have told Jose about her illness but she didn't need to because if he really loved her he should have sensed something’s wrong. Cleo tells Angele she will phone for the doctor for the results later that evening.
Bob de 17 h. 31 a 17 h. 38
Cleo's rehearsal pianist Bob and the song writer arrive to Cleo's (the pianist is played by the film's real music composer.) When entering to greet Cleo they joke on her and pretend to be doctors knowing she just came from the doctor, but she doesn't find the joke so funny. Cleo wants to hurry with the rehearsals and get them over with. Her rehearsal pianist ask Cleo why she wants to hurry on the new songs she wants to record when the recordings are next week, and Cleo says that something has come up, keeping her supposed illiness a secret. The rehearsal pianist starts up on the piano and plays one of Cleo's new songs for her to rehearse and sing. After complaining that the songs being played are either too complicated or dated, there is one song that Cleo enjoys.
Cleo de 17 h. 38 a 17 h. 45
When there is one dramatic and slow song the rehearsal pianist and the song writer don't believe Cleo can sing it and Cleo thinks the two always deride her talents. When she tries the song the camera slowly swirls around her and she beautifully sings, putting all her emotions and feelings into the song as she stares into the camera and as a tear runs down her face. After finishing Cleo says, "It's too much. I can't go on. It's horrible." Cleo's tells the two that they shouldn't have inserted the word 'despair' into the song, but her song writer believes that song will revolutionize the music buisness.
Cleo angry says, "What's a song? How long can it last? You make me capricious! Nothing but a china doll! Revolutions with macabre words. You think I'll make a hit with that? You're trying to exploit me! Get out!?" Cleo believes her pianist and song writer don't truly take her serious as a true artist as the song writer calls her a 'spoiled, self-pitying child.' "Everyone spoils me. No one loves me," Cleo tells them. Cleo angrily takes off her wig and decides to leave her studio. She leaves and after walking down the street she looks at herself in the reflection thinking: "My unchanging doll's face, this ridiculous hat. I can't see my own fears. I always think everyone's looking at me, but I only look at myself. It wears me out." Cleo watches a stunt man in the street taking frogs and placing them into his mouth, and she quickly walks away.
Quelques Autres de 17 h. 45 a 17 h. 52
Cleo walks into a cafe and plays one of her songs in the jukebox while a group of men sitting next to the jukebox are discussing the war in Algeria and how one of the men doesn't know where to stand on the war. Cleo makes her way around the restaurant and a customer complains about her song saying that she can't hear a word with the noise, but it's unclear whether Cleo overhears or not. Cleo takes a seat at a table ordering a brandy thinking to herself that after all these years she finds herself back in this cafe overlooking all the different types of character's within the cafe. Cleo makes her way once again on the streets of Paris and she starts to believe everyone including her friends are watching and judging her.
Cleo decides to visit a friend of hers named Dorothee as she heads across the street and into a ceramics store and watches several pottery makers making several sculptures on Dorothee who poses as a nude model. Dorothee sees Cleo and after she is finished posing they both leave together. Cleo asks her that she is surprised she doesn't mind posing nude because she would feel so exposed and afraid the artists would find a fault. Dorothee thinks that is nonsense saying her body makes her happy saying, "They're looking at more than just me. A shape, an idea. It's as if I wasn't there. Like I was asleep. And I'm paid for it." They get inside Dorothee's boyfriend Raoul's car which was lent to Dorothee. The two girlfriends go for a drive and Cleo reveals to Dorothee her illness as the two chat about how Cleo and her boyfriend Jose aren't as close as Dorothee thought they were.
Raoul de 18 h. a 18 h.04
Dorothee and Cleo both arrive at Raoul's work at a movie theatre in which Raoul seems to work as a film projector. When Raoul is told by Dorothee that Cleo is ill he asks her to watch a comedy short because it will put her in a better mood. The short seems to be a Buster Keaton like silent slapstick comedy (in which the man who plays the protagonist is played by Jean-luc Godard and the woman he wants to win over is ironically Anna Karina.)
Cleo de 18 h. 04 a 18h. 12
When the two women leave Raoul's movie house Dorothee drops her purse and breaks her purse mirror, in which Cleo believes it to be a bad omen of death. Cleo decides to take Dorothee home as they pass a crowd looking at an accident in a shop window in which it appears a man was killed. The two get in a cab and Dorothee reassures Cleo that the bad omen of the broken mirror was for the dead man.
After the cab drops off Dorothee Cleo orders the cab to drive into the park. When they get to a children's playground Cleo asks the cab to stop and she gets out. She takes a stroll through the park and over a bridge looking out at the water. A man approaches her and says, "Like the sound of water? It's quiet here isn't it?" Cleo is weary of the man at first and tries to ignore him.
Antoine de 18 h. 12 a 18 h. 15
The man introduces himself as Antoine and tries to make small talk about it being the first day of summer, and when Cleo asks the time Antoine asks if she is waiting for someone. Cleo says no and when Antoine says he isn't either she says, "But all men wait for women. Then they speak to them. I don't usually reply. Today I forgot. My thoughts were elsewhere. You look so calm." Antoine says he's on leave for three weeks from the military as he is a soldier. Antoine asks Cleo if she is married and when Cleo asks him if she looks like she is on the prowl he says, "You seem to be waiting for something, rather than someone." Cleo tells Antoine she is waiting for medical results and tells him it's of cancer. She tells him that a fortune teller predicted it and Antoine asks why she believes in such nonsense as fortune tellers. When Cleo explains how she is afraid of death, Antoine talks about how he can relate describing how he felt when he was shipped over in Algeria to fight in the war. "Die for nothing. That's what upsets us. I'd rather die of love for a woman," Antoine says.
The two talk about falling in love and Antoine says how he always stops half way, and Cleo admits that she does as well. Cleo starts to feel comfortable with Antoine now knowing that someone can relate to the same fear she is feeling. Cleo explains how she is afraid of facing the doctor in person and Antoine suggests going along with her to her appointment to keep her company, and then she can see him off later at the station; and she agrees. The two walk through the park and chat as Cleo explains to Antoine that her name is Florence but everyone calls her Cleo, short for Cleopatra. Antoine says, "It conjures up thoughts of Italy, the Renaissance, Botticelli, a rose." Antoine tells Cleo he prefers her real name Florence and chats about his grandmother. They both reach the city and hop on the tramcar chatting about Cleo's friend Dorothee who poses nude for a living and the thoughts of nudity, art and beauty.
When the two finally arrive at the hospital Cleo is told that her doctor already left for the day and so Cleo decides to wait out in the hospital courtyard just in case her doctor returns. The two walk out in the courtyard gardens and hold hands, but Cleo realizes her and Antoine don't have much time together as Antoine has to soon make his way to the station. The doctor suddenly arrives and drives up to them in his car informing Cleo that she will need two months of chemotherapy which should set things right, and then the doctor drives off. Cleo and Antoine shocked by the unfortunate answers from Cleo's doctor walk together as Antoine says, "I'm sorry I'm leaving. I'd like to be with you." Cleo turns to Antoine and says, "You are. I think my fear is gone. I think I'm happy."
FRENCH NEW WAVE
The New Wave was a blanket term coined by critics for a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Although never a formally organized movement, the New Wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of the literary period pieces being made in France and written by novelists, their spirit of youthful iconoclasm, the desire to shoot more current social issues on location, and their intention of experimenting with the film form. "New Wave" is an example of European art cinema. Many also engaged in their work with the social and political upheavals of the era, making their radical experiments with editing, visual style and narrative part of a general break with the conservative paradigm.
Using light-weight portable equipment, hand-held cameras and requiring little or no set up time, the New Wave way of film-making presented a documentary style. The films exhibited direct sounds on film stock that required less light. Filming techniques included fragmented, freeze-frames, discontinuous editing, and long takes. The combination of objective realism, subjective realism, and authorial commentary created a narrative ambiguity in the sense that questions that arise in a film are not answered in the end.
Alexandre Astruc's manifesto, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo", published in L`Ecran, on 30 March 1948 outlined some of the ideas that were later expanded upon by François Truffaut and the Cahiers du cinéma. It argues that "cinema was in the process of becoming a new mean of expression on the same level as painting and the novel: a form in which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. This is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of the 'camera-stylo."
Some of the most prominent pioneers among the group, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, began as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Cahiers co-founder and theorist André Bazin was a prominent source of influence for the movement. By means of criticism and editorialization, they laid the groundwork for a set of concepts, revolutionary at the time, which the American film critic Andrew Sarris called the 'auteur theory.'
Cahiers du cinéma writers critiqued the classic "Tradition of Quality" style of French Cinema. Bazin and Henri Langlois, founder and curator of the Cinémathèque Française, were the dual godfather figures of the movement. These men of cinema valued the expression of the director's personal vision in both the film's style and script.
The 'auteur theory' holds that the director is the "author" of his movies, with a personal signature visible from film to film. They praised movies by Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo, and made then-radical cases for the artistic distinction and greatness of Hollywood studio directors such as Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. The beginning of the New Wave was to some extent an exercise by the Cahiers writers in applying this philosophy to the world by directing movies themselves.
Truffaut, with The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard, with Breathless (1960) had unexpected international successes, both critical and financial, that turned the world's attention to the activities of the New Wave and enabled the movement to flourish. Part of their technique was to portray characters not readily labeled as protagonists in the classic sense of audience identification.
The auteurs of this era owe their popularity to the support they received with their youthful audience. Most of these directors were born in the 1930s and grew up in Paris, relating to how their viewers might be experiencing life. They were considered the first film generation to have a "film education", knowledge of and references to film history. With high concentration in fashion, urban professional life, and all-night parties, the life of France's youth was being exquisitely captured.
The French New Wave was popular roughly between 1958 and 1964, although New Wave work existed as late as 1973. The socio-economic forces at play shortly after World War II strongly influenced the movement. Politically and financially drained, France tended to fall back on the old popular pre-war traditions. One such tradition was straight narrative cinema, specifically classical French film.
The movement has its roots in rebellion against the reliance on past forms (often adapted from traditional novelistic structures), criticizing in particular the way these forms could force the audience to submit to a dictatorial plot-line. They were especially against the French "cinema of quality", the type of high-minded, literary period films held in esteem at French film festivals, often regarded as 'untouchable' by criticism.
New Wave critics and directors studied the work of western classics and applied new avant garde stylistic direction. The low-budget approach helped filmmakers get at the essential art form and find what was, to them, a much more comfortable and contemporary form of production. Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and many other forward-thinking film directors were held up in admiration while standard Hollywood films bound by traditional narrative flow were strongly criticized. French New Wave were also influenced by Italian Neorealism and classical Hollywood cinema.
The French New Wave featured unprecedented methods of expression, such as long tracking shots (like the famous traffic jam sequence in Godard's 1967 film Week End). Also, these movies featured existential themes, such as stressing the individual and the acceptance of the absurdity of human existence. Filled with irony and sarcasm, the films also tend to reference other films.
Many of the French New Wave films were produced on tight budgets; often shot in a friend's apartment or yard, using the director's friends as the cast and crew. Directors were also forced to improvise with equipment (for example, using a shopping cart for tracking shots). The cost of film was also a major concern; thus, efforts to save film turned into stylistic innovations. For example, in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, after being told the film was too long and he must cut it down to one hour and a half he decided (on the suggestion of Jean-Pierre Melville) to remove several scenes from the feature using jump cuts, as they were filmed in one long take. Parts that did not work were simply cut from the middle of the take, a practical decision and also a purposeful stylistic one.
The cinematic stylings of French New Wave brought a fresh look to cinema with improvised dialogue, rapid changes of scene, and shots that go beyond the common 180° axis. The camera was used not to mesmerize the audience with elaborate narrative and illusory images, but to play with the expectations of cinema. The techniques used to shock and awe the audience out of submission and were so bold and direct that Jean-Luc Godard has been accused of having contempt for his audience. His stylistic approach can be seen as a desperate struggle against the mainstream cinema of the time, or a degrading attack on the viewer's supposed naivety. Either way, the challenging awareness represented by this movement remains in cinema today. Effects that now seem either trite or commonplace, such as a character stepping out of their role in order to address the audience directly, were radically innovative at the time.
Classic French cinema adhered to the principles of strong narrative, creating what Godard described as an oppressive and deterministic aesthetic of plot. In contrast, New Wave filmmakers made no attempts to suspend the viewer's disbelief; in fact, they took steps to constantly remind the viewer that a film is just a sequence of moving images, no matter how clever the use of light and shadow. The result is a set of oddly disjointed scenes without attempt at unity; or an actor whose character changes from one scene to the next; or sets in which onlookers accidentally make their way onto camera along with extras, who in fact were hired to do just the same.
At the heart of New Wave technique is the issue of money and production value. In the context of social and economic troubles of a post-World War II France, filmmakers sought low-budget alternatives to the usual production methods, and were inspired by the generation of Italian Neorealists before them. Half necessity and half vision, New Wave directors used all that they had available to channel their artistic visions directly to the theatre.
Finally, the French New Wave, as the European modern Cinema, is focused on the technique as style itself. A French New Wave film-maker is first of all an author who shows in its film his own eye on the world. On the other hand the film as the object of knowledge challenges the usual transitivity on which all the other cinema was based, "undoing its cornerstones: space and time continuity, narrative and grammatical logics, the self-evidence of the represented worlds." In this way the film-maker passes "the essay attitude, thinking – in a novelist way – on his own way to do essays."
The Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, group is a contingent of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave, first identified as such by Richard Roud. The corresponding "right bank" group is constituted of the more famous and financially successful New Wave directors associated with Cahiers du cinéma. Unlike the Cahiers these directors were older and less movie-crazed. They tended to see cinema akin to other arts, such as literature. However they were similar to the New Wave directors in that they practiced cinematic modernism. Their emergence also came in the 1950s and they also benefited from the youthful audience. The two groups, however, were not in opposition; Cahiers du cinéma advocated Left Bank cinema.
Left Bank directors include Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. Roud described a distinctive "fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking", as well as an identification with the political left. The filmmakers tended to collaborate with one another, Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras are also associated with the group. The nouveau roman movement in literature was also a strong element of the Left Bank style, with authors contributing to many of the films. Left Bank films include La Pointe Courte, Hiroshima mon amour, La jetée, Last Year at Marienbad, and Trans-Europ-Express.
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.
Her film Le Bonheur is a movie that I believe to be one of Agnes Varda's most underrated and most powerful. Le Bonheur which means Happiness in English tells the story of a married man who openly has an affair with another woman. He believes that he is entitled to carry out his selfish male desires and openly asks his wife to accept it. The film was remarkable and disturbing, as it portrayed a selfish and cruel man, and it made me feel a sort of disdain for the male gender. Vagabond is a masterpiece by Varda and a film that should be looked at as highly as Cleo from 5 to 7. It tells a remarkable story about an unknown woman who wanders through French wine country one winter and unfortunately freezes to death. Her identity and where she came from remained a mystery and yet the film explores the men she encountered during her travels in a series of flashbacks and how she effected their lives in several different ways. Many look at Varda as a feminist of cinema, especially with her harsh insights of male characters within such films like Le Bonheur and Vagabond. I can somewhat agree with that. And yet there is a fairness in how she portrays both sexes, because when it comes right down to it, she shows you that males and females feel the same things, they just come about their feelings much differently.
What makes Cleo from 5 to 7 such a extraordinary and groundbreaking experience was the way Varda experimented with the reconstruction of 'real-time' within a story. There have been earlier films that tried capturing that experience, most famously Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope in 1948. But Cleo from 5 to 7 was one of the first to really achieve it before other directors dabbled in it, like Alexander Sokrov's beautiful Russian Ark in 2002. Cleo from 5 to 7 captures an account of an hour and a half in the life of a young woman, and Varda explores that hour in a half with several single camera takes that Hitchcock cleverly faked and that Sokurov bravely maintained. The film is beautifully photographed and choreographed with a jazzy soundtrack to boot, as the camera strolls with Cleo throughout the busy streets of Paris following her on this spiritual journey of self enlightenment and discovery. Varda cleverly mixes the documentary footage to create a narrative of fiction as Varda described the film as "the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris." What's also wonderful about the film is the free spirited and playful touches that Varda adds, like several interesting cuts, the epilogue being in color and the silent movie sequence that features Godard and Anna Karina, exploring the silent film within a film. Varda seems to love mirrors and reflections as a repeated theme within the story, as Cleo always seems to stop and admire her beauty within mirrors and window reflections. In a very interesting sequence Cleo is in a cafe and one of hers songs is playing overhead in the background. A woman who is sitting near Cleo is overheard complaining about the noise on the radio, and yet I always wondered if Cleo had heard that woman say that. The structure of the film follows the space and time that Cleo is in and the one cheat within the film is Varda naming it Cleo from 5 to 7, instead of it being called from 5 to 6:30. Cleo is a character that's easy to feel sympathy for, even though the audience knows she's vain, spoiled and shallow. Varda deliberately gave her the superficial employment of a pop singer, who is undoubtedly well off and privileged. (Her character made me automatically think of such shallow celebs within the American Hollywood system who for whatever reason are famous .) Cleo's hobbies in the film seem to be shopping and visiting friends and Varda has said that the character of Cleo was meant to resemble several pop singers in France of that time. Cleo is a very narcissistic, self absorbed celeb who also seems to be quite gullible in believing such preposterous things as tarot cards, bad omens and fortune tellers, and always is superstitious about everything. And yet, deep down inside she is a much more deeper and intellectual person than all her friends give her credit for. Unfortunately for people like Cleo or anyone famous for that matter it's hard to tell if the friends they have are really their friends and if they truly are there for their best interests emotionally and financially, or if their just using them because of who they are in the industry. The journey that Cleo is on may seem simple and straightforward on a geographic level but emotionally Cleo goes through a deep and spiritual transformation. (The fortune teller seemed to be correct.) By the time Cleo meets the soldier Antoine on leave, the unimportant and materialistic things that she always believed made her happy, aren't important to her any longer, and she now looks at life and people in a whole new light. Who knows, if Cleo wasn't going through such an emotional and existential crisis if she would of ever paid attention to a man like Antoine, or maybe she would have probably continued to date men like Jose, men who support her financially but clearly don't love her. Like all human beings, we take for granted the things we have until are mortality is in question and we have stared at the face of death, and suddenly such things that always seemed important aren't so important any longer. Even though Cleo's fate isn't really sealed at the end of the film, she can at least now look into the future with a glimmer of hope and without fear. Cleo spiritually has grown throughout this hour and a half, and after connecting with Antoine, Cleo can now can see a future that is worth fighting for. Antoine will probably have to return to Algeria and continue fighting the war, while Cleo will continue to stay in Paris and fight her war with cancer, but at least the two of them know that if they get through these difficult obstacles, they will be waiting for each other on the other side. Sometimes love is the only thing a person truly needs in life and it can be more powerful than all the money and beauty in the world. Cleo is no longer afraid of death and what her future might bring, and because of this, she has now grown from a spoiled young girl to a confident and strong woman.