Director Agnès Varda on the set
Varda on the set with Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard
Varda and Godard
CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) B+
France Italy (90 mi) 1962 d: Agnès Varda
Listed at #2 in the recent (November 2019) BBC Poll, The 100 greatest films directed by women, while also included at #44 for the 100 greatest foreign-language films of all time in a poll conducted a year earlier, with Varda garnering more votes than any other female director. Made the same year as Godard’s My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux) (1962), both films are distinguished by strong lead performances from women and both accentuate the busy streets of Paris, emerging into an unspoken character in each, becoming time capsules of what Paris looked like in the early 60’s. Both films are divided by chapter headings, 12 in Godard’s film that uses the breaks to create a Brechtian emotional distance from the lead character, while the 13 chapters in Varda’s film simply mark time in a story told in real-time, with no fewer than 48 actual locations, as the fluid action continues right through them, both fictionalized stories told with a precise attention to detail from a near-documentary format. Also of interest, Michel Legrand composes the music for both films, making an appearance here as Cléo’s musical trainer, while Godard and Anna Karina also appear briefly as comic relief in a short film-within-a film, a Silent era comical romp, both dressed as clowns. This personal connection with Godard was openly examined in Varda’s film Faces Places (Visages Villages) (2017), where co-director JR was always seen in dark glasses wearing the same hat, like a stand-in for Godard, being the same age as Varda when she made this film, both very publicly making a trek to Godard’s home to pay a visit, with Varda openly hurt and disappointed when he doesn’t answer, instead leaving a cryptic message on a glass window, with elaborate security measures preventing them from even ringing the doorbell. It’s a strange turn of events from their open collaboration early in their careers to what happens near the end of their lives, with Godard refusing to even acknowledge her. Largely ignored by the male fraternity of New Wave directors and historians, never writing, as they did, for the Cahiers du Cinéma magazine prior to directing, she was simply not part of the boy’s club and instead made films her own way, continuing to make documentaries and shorts throughout her lifetime, but it’s clear with this film that she was there at the beginning offering a uniquely personal female perspective. Who but Agnès Varda could take such a dismal premise, biding one’s time over the course of two hours while waiting for the results of a biopsy test for cancer, and turn it into a playfully charming romp through the streets of Paris that examines the subjective experience of being a woman, as a high-maintenance fashion model and singer transforms her shallow and superficial view of herself, spoiled and self-obsessed by celebrity and fashion, always needing the approval of others, allowing beauty and fame to determine her sense of identity, believing “ugliness is a kind of death,” but this slowly transforms over time as she contemplates her mortality, growing more introspective, suddenly discarding her earlier notions while taking an emotional leap into the future, where the streets of Paris become a mirrored image of her personal odyssey as she redefines and reshapes her own view of herself.
Corinne Marchand, from Jacques Demy’s earlier film LOLA (1961), stars as Florence “Cléo” Victoire, a beautiful fashion model and singer who is defined by her own anxieties and superstitions, seen visiting a fortune teller who reads the Tarot cards with frightening results, leaving her in tears at the thought of her impending doom, knowing she is sick with cancer, but it was discovered early and there are no symptoms of pain. Instead, as she exits the reading, she wanders through the streets of Paris, blending into the bustling crowds, retaining a certain anonymity before meeting her gregarious yet well-grounded personal assistant, Angèle (Dominique Davray), who freely offers advice, but spends her time comforting a woman in distress, still openly in tears, lacking all hope, and dwelling on the worst outcome possible. Needing a change in mood, they decide to go window shopping, finding an upscale millinery shop where Cléo tries on various hats, each displaying a different mood, but it allows her to perform before an audience, gaining plenty of attention, where at this point she appears to be a vanity project. By the time they return to her enormous apartment, basically a gigantic room with a bed in it, where she remains perched, surrounded by dolls, pillows, and tiny kittens, receiving a wealthy gentleman caller, José Luis de Vilallonga from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961), who has no time to dawdle, leaving a feeling of emptiness afterwards, thinking all men are egotists, to which Angèle agrees. Her next visitors are something of a surprise, including Michel Legrand in a rare appearance in front of the camera as her pianist trying to cheer her up, doing a lame slapstick routine with a songwriter (French director Serge Korber) before suggesting new songs for her to sing, none of which interest her, particularly when the lyrics mention death, which sends her swooning in despair. But there is a poignant moment when she sings a song, Chanson 'Sans Toi ' from Cleo de 5 a 7 - YouTube (2:12), a turning point in the film, as the piano is joined by an unseen orchestra, adding a touch of theatricality, with Cléo no longer reading the lyrics, singing directly to the camera, taking the song to heart, expressing a rush of emotion before quickly deriding that song as well for being too depressing, angrily dismissing the music industry for exploiting her, claiming no one really loves her, changing her wardrobe, ripping off her blond wig, and making a hasty exit, leaving all that behind. Retreating back to the anonymity of the streets, she appears stripped of emotion, losing herself in the crowd, biding her time, anxiously walking through a café, ordering a brandy, yet despite being surrounded by people she feels restless and alone, losing patience with herself, lost in an existential void, still dreading the inevitable test results, yet trying to distract herself any way possible.
Filmed in black and white (though in some “restored” versions the opening card reading sequence is in color) by three different cinematographers, all taking place on the first day of summer, shot mostly in the Montparnasse district, the film breathes kinetic energy, as Cléo is constantly in motion, where a predominate theme becomes admiring herself in a stream of mirrors that are forever appearing, creating a dazzling display of exaggerated double effects, exposing the fragile vulnerability of what’s happening underneath the surface, where only Fassbinder makes better use of them in Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Roulette) (1976). Unlike male directors accentuating male camaraderie, Cléo’s friends are women, where we hear the inner thoughts of other characters in the film besides Cléo, but they’re always women, each offering something uniquely different, from the Tarot reader, the hat salesperson, a female cabdriver, and her personal assistant, but viewers are in for a surprise when she meets Dorothée, Dorothée Blanck from LOLA, who has personality galore and a zest for life, found working as a nude model in an artist’s sculptor studio, hopping into her jazzy convertible afterwards (actually her boyfriend’s) and taking a thrilling ride through the Parisian streets, with the camera offering a dizzying viewpoint as they swoop in and out of the circular roundabouts, but this buoyant mood quickly dissipates when Cléo informs her she may be dying of cancer, which comes in the darkness of a tunnel, taking the light away from Dorothée’s upbeat mood, quickly regained however when she meets her boyfriend Raul (French photographer Raymond Cauchetier), a projectionist screening a burlesque film short filled with sweetness and charm that gleefully alters the mood, with Godard and Karina poking fun at seriousness, but it jokingly shows a woman dying, which keeps Cléo’s mood in the dumps, sharing a taxi with Dorothée, giving her the hat she didn’t really want before dropping her off, thinking of someone else, perhaps for the first time, continuing into Parc Montsouris, where a piano and orchestral score offer a surge of emotion, getting out and wandering alone, trying to elevate her spirits, doing a little dance routine on stairs before finding solace in the isolated beauty of the park, with the sedate sound of a nearby stream of water having a calming effect. Interrupting her quiet meditation is a stranger (much like news reports have constantly intruded into earlier scenes), a soldier on leave (Antoine Bourseiller) who is similarly filling time before returning back to the front lines of the Algerian War, one few soldiers believe in, as there are heavy death tolls, believing they die for nothing. While initially put off by his talkative manner, she grows to appreciate his situation, not that different from her own, perhaps even worse. They share fleeting thoughts and reflections in the short time they have together, taking a long bus ride together visiting the hospital to find her doctor before he catches a train out of the city, eventually having a last-minute revelation (coming a half-hour early), quickly closing on an ambiguous note, but she finds herself less vain, less isolated, and more open to embracing the world around her.
The only major film of the French New Wave directed by a woman, the beautiful construction and lyrical fluidity is constantly inventive, highlighting the changing moods, offering strange, self-reflexive insertions throughout, accentuated by Varda’s photojournalistic eye for detail, infused with a free-spirited and playful cinema vérité style, with close-ups of faces, catching brief hints of conversations, or random street moments, like seeing costumed students swarm around a taxi or a boy on the curb playing a toy piano, providing a sensually moving and mysteriously provocative, psychological transformation, reminding the world of her importance as a feminist filmmaker.