Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)
Agnes Varda’s 1961 French New Wave film is a visual feast of Paris, taking us through the streets, cafes, studios and parks that the city has to offer. Cleo (Corinne Marchand) , on the verge of pop stardom as a singer, is our guide on this journey, as she anxiously awaits from her doctor if she has cancer. The film takes place close to real time, for about two hours of her day, while she wanders around Paris, encountering friends along the way.
The film has a unique opening, shot in color, showing the hands of an old woman and Cleo’s. The old woman is a tarot card reader and is talking of Cleo’s past, present and future, giving us an interesting introduction to our main character before we’ve even seen her. It then cuts to Cleo, revealing a gorgeous blond, and the film is then shot in black and white.
As Cleo meets her assistant and they discuss her health issues at a cafe, the camera is showing us everything, nothing is staged, or so it seems, and we feel we are also sitting in the cafe with them. While the assistant is talking to a cafe patron, we can overhear a couple arguing at the table next to them. We can hear and feel the bustle of Paris as the camera wanders, though, never straying from Cleo, with her beauty a magnet for our eyes.
Cleo herself has unstable emotional outburst throughout the film. While trying to rehearse with her musicians, she storms off but changes into a black dress and hat, symbolizing her oncoming dread of the tests results, the death she is certain to face. Her friends seem indifferent to her grief and don’t take her seriously as the pretty pop star with nothing else to offer. Cleo struggles with her projected image of beauty, perfection and the stark contrast of her internally struggling health.
While walking in the streets, the camera shows us her viewpoint, being her eyes. Passerby’s stare directly into the camera openly, non actors and naturally interested in looking, but masterfully gives us the feeling of how it feels to be a woman and the stares they must ignore. This viewpoint is done throughout the film and never loses its impact, especially during the sculptor scene.
Though much of the film is strikingly visual and sensory, the dialogue is focused primarily on Cleo’s internal anguish with self reflections on the fragility of life, the meaning of it and how to be a part of it, but also revealing her self absorption with her own beauty. We don’t feel much sympathy for her because of her self importance and aloofness, but are nonetheless charmed by her charisma and physical beauty, like most of the people she encounters.
Walking around in a park, a sailor makes a pass at her, but she quickly denies him, but just as quick, she then apologizes. She explains her situation and the charismatic sailor puts her at ease, Cleo having her first conversation without feeling judged or feeling indifference. She accepts his offer to escort her to the hospital for the results and then she to escort him as he leaves for duty. Cleo’s doctor confirms she has cancer but she should recover within a couple months. Her mood is uplifted with this news along with being with a new love interest, the film ending with an open ended possibility of the two having something intimate.
Overall, this film does captures the French New Wave style of the auteur leaving a personal stamp on the film’s vision. This film, however, is unique in giving not only a woman’s perspective emotionally but also visually. The acting is natural, fluent and spontaneous, seemingly improvised which is a credit to the actors and director. The stunning cinematography and intimate visuals of Paris is the backbone of this film, a memorable invitation to the city of love.
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Tags: Agnes Varda, Cleo From 5 to 7, Corinne Marchand, French New Wave, Paris