Review by James Bratone
Cleo from 5 to 7
1962, written and directed by Agnes Varda
Cleo Victoire is a young, successful pop singer in Paris with hit singles playing regularly on the radio. She is beautiful, rich, has a successful boyfriend and even a personal assistant. But things are not what they seem. She is ill with what she dreads to be cancer. In fact, as the film opens, she is awaiting test results from the hospital that might confirm her fears. The results are due at 7 pm. and the action starts at 5; the film follows Cleo for those two hours. We watch her virtually moment by moment as she awaits the news that could indicate her imminent death. Two hours of her life are presented in an hour and a half, almost cinema verite style, each episode of ten minutes or so presented as a chapter with a title and the time interval in which the episode occurs, so we are continually reminded of the quickly approaching 7 pm. The first chapter finds her consulting a fortune teller who sees an ominous sign in the tarot cards but can’t bring herself to tell Cleo the bad news. Cleo senses what the cards reveal and leaves in tears, convinced that her death sentence has been written. In the next chapter, she meets her maid and personal assistant, Angele, and with her, Cleo buys a new hat as a way of distracting herself. And so it goes, as we follow her through a seemingly mundane late afternoon, the first day of summer. She goes home where her boyfriend, an important older businessman, visits briefly but he seems always too busy for her. Her songwriter and lyricist drop by and she somewhat playfully argues with them over a new song which she finally decides she likes. Then she goes out alone and wanders the streets of Paris, gets a drink in a sidewalk café, meets her friend, Dorothee, and together they drive around in her friend’s car. As the time gets close to 7, she parts with her friend because she wants to confront her fate alone. To kill time, she wanders through a park and there she meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. He starts talking to her but she is too preoccupied to pay much attention or to engage him. But slowly she opens up and they develop a rapport. She reveals to him that Cleo is not even her real name but only a nickname, short for Cleopatra, and that her real name is Flora, which suggests that she’s allowing him to see her true self. Antoine tells her that he doesn’t fear death per se but only dying for nothing and without meaning, another hint to her that meaning is what her life has been lacking. He convinces her to let him accompany her to the hospital. On the bus ride there, she starts smiling and even laughing. A bond is forming between them. It turns out that his leave is almost over. In fact he must get on a train in a few hours to return to the Algerian front. At the hospital, it seems that her doctor has already gone home. As the two dejectedly walk away, her doctor pulls up in his convertible and breezily informs her that she has cancer but that it’s not life threatening. Three months of chemotherapy, he casually says, and she’ll be fine, then off he goes, leaving the two of them there. They gaze into each other’s eyes. She has a look that suggests the first stirrings of something she has never felt before.
When the film opens, Cleo comes across as vain and somewhat shallow, and her songs, forgettable pop tunes blaring from radios, only reinforce that impression. She obsesses with how she comes across, primping as she gazes into any reflective surface. She’s spoiled by the adulation of her fans, by Angele who takes care of her every need, her songwriting team and even by her rich boyfriend who showers her with gifts if not as much with his time and attention.
But she is changing. Possibly facing her own imminent end has given her the first glimmers of depth and self-reflection. At her apartment, she takes off her wig and make-up; this is how we see her for the rest of the film. She is shedding her mask, her artifice. She complains to Angele that everyone spoils her but that no one loves her, an insight she probably wouldn’t have come to normally. When she’s out walking by herself, she looks at her reflection in a café window and says to herself in voice-over “I’ve always thought that everyone was looking at me when it was actually me staring at myself.” She’s growing and maturing as we watch, a process that’s greatly compressed due to the inherent drama and gravity of her situation. Set in stark relief against death, the vanity and vacuity of her old life start to fall away. And she feels the first intimations of true love for Antoine, a love she has probably been too self-absorbed to have ever experienced before. Their feelings for each other are intensified because each is facing mortality which has a way of intensifying life and passion. Perhaps for the first time, she can allow herself to experience the moment because her moments may soon end.
This is a great film because it conveys so much about life and love but does so with utter efficiency, even casualness. It has an off-handed, improvisatory kind of depth and whimsy typical of the French New Wave. There is so much sentiment here without even a whiff of sentimentality. Cleo’s journey, which is everyone’s, is embedded in our journey of watching it. The film is made up, to a large degree, of the fleeting beauty of a first summer afternoon in Paris, and this beauty, this fleetingness is a large part of what the film is about. It’s the kind of movie that gives you the impression that you could see more in it with every viewing. It’s also a great early feminist film; a woman sheds the traditional, confining role she’s been handed in order to discover and ultimately become herself.
Agnes Varda, the great, and greatly under-appreciated, writer and director, has often been grouped with the Fench New Wave directors. In fact, many critics and film historians have dubbed her “The Godmother of the New Wave” because of her first film, “Le Pointe Courte” of 1954, six years before Godard’s Breathless, traditionally considered to have started the New Wave. Schools and movements have almost always been invented and promoted by critics and historians, rarely by artists. And the great artists are too stubbornly singular to fit into any school. Yet some of the stylistic elements in Cleo, such as its unfolding in virtual real time, the subverting of the traditional narrative film structure ( the “climax,” which is the doctor’s prognosis, is almost a jokey afterthought, a throwaway), the fluid camerawork and an overall light, breezy, lyrical air, are typical of the movement. It’s more relaxed and slower-paced and reflective than Godard or Truffaut usually are; it has less of their electric energy and formal invention, and yet one can sense a family resemblance. It is slower but also seems more profound somehow than the films of Godard or Truffaut. Its greatness and beauty sneak up on you.
I definitely recommend Cleo from 5 to 7 and also Varda’s Vagabond, the only other of her films I’ve seen, which also has a female protagonist and is also great.
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