CLÉO DE 5 À 7 (1962)

  • Director: Agnés Varda
  • Writer: Agnés Varda
  • Starring: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, José Luis de Villalonga, Dorothée Blanck, Serge Korber, Michel Lagrand, and Raymond Cauchetier
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women, shown at 1962 Cannes International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on the Criterion Channel

When the BBC ran a poll of hundreds of film folks in 2019 to pick the 100 greatest films with female directors, Agnés Varda had the most movies on the list, with six entries. The earliest of these, and the highest on the list, is Varda’s second film of a very long career, Cléo de 5 à 7 (in English, Cleo From 5 to 7). It’s a seemingly small movie covering just a couple of hours in a woman’s life, yet it’s had an outsized impact on the film landscape over the years, as has Varda herself. Born in Belgium and raised in France, she became a major presence in the world movie scene from the 1960s right up until her death in 2019 at the age of 90, continuing to release both frequent features and documentaries all that time. Martin Scorsese called her “one of the Gods of Cinema,” and in 2017, she became the first female director to receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

In different hands, Cléo de 5 à 7 might come off as nothing more than a sort of specific filmmaking exercise, kind of the Phone Booth of 1962. Instead, it is known as this deep meditation on human nature, because that humanism is in every frame. It simply follows its main character, a singer named, you guessed it, Cléo (Corinne Marchand), over the course of two hours of her life from 5 to 7 in the afternoon on June 21, 1961. The movie unfolds in what is, apparently, entirely real time, complete with frequent on-screen chapter titles that, in English, have names like “Chapter 7: Cléo from 5:35 to 5:42.” If you listen to Varda’s discussion in the Criterion Channel special features, she notes that they even made sure every clock in the background is set to the correct time. In reality, the movie is only 90 minutes, and it covers a period of two hours, so if that affects your feelings of verisimilitude, so be it, I guess, but it all works remarkably well.

The overriding theme of the two hours is that Cléo is waiting for the results of a biopsy that may show that she has cancer. Sometimes she finds the anxiety overwhelming, other times the possibility of near-term death seems almost freeing. The movie opens with her visiting a tarot reader, who tells her that she will probably be OK, but then we see the psychic immediately tell an assistant that she saw death. Cléo then goes through her day, visiting a few friends, going shopping for hats, briefly practicing some new songs (the pianist is played by Michel Legrand, who composed the score for this movie and eventually received 3 Oscars for score and song composition), and eventually ending up at a park alone, where she meets a soldier (Antoine Bourseiller, who became Varda’s real-life lover and had a daughter with her) on leave from the Algerian War of Independence, which was going on at this time. They agree that he will accompany her to get her results and she will accompany him to the train station to go back to duty. In the final scene of the movie, the doctor tells her (off-hand, from the driver’s seat of his sports car) that she has cancer and needs two months of chemo, but it’s “nothing to worry about.” She then tells the soldier that for some reason she isn’t scared anymore, and smiles.

Varda’s early work is sometimes considered part of the French New Wave, particularly Cléo, which includes a cameo by perhaps the movement’s most famous director, Jean-Luc Godard. She is also considered, along with Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and others, to be part of a specific subset of the “New Wave” sometimes referred to as Rive Gauche or “Left Bank Films.” While “Right Bank” directors like Truffaut and Godard were absolutely obsessed with cinema and its history, “Left Bank” directors tended to be more “bohemian” in their outlook and were influenced, not just my movies, but by other arts like painting, literature, and music. The latter influences are well on display here, with Cléo’s singing, a sequence where she goes to visit her friend as she nude models for a sculpting class (Dorothée Blanck, who was a professional model rather than a professional actress), and even a “comic” silent film that Cléo watches at one point (starring Godard and famous New Wave actress Anna Karina).

I continue to talk, in these articles about films with women directors, about how important and interesting I find that seemingly slight change of perspective. Varda’s movies have been described as having feminist themes, and she certainly describes herself as a feminist, but I think (based on interviews I’ve seen) that both Varda and I would describe her movies more as being deeply personal to her, someone who is, you know, a woman. It’s simply that, as moviegoers, over the years we have not had as many movies from a woman’s perspective as we should have. Cléo is certainly a movie concerned with both how women are seen and how they see themselves. So many scenes involve either mirrors or other reflections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the main character spent more time looking into various mirrors than Cléo does here. She tells many of her friends, as well as the soldier that she meets, about her pending diagnosis, but she does not tell her unnamed lover (José Luis de Vilallonga, who also appeared as a “latin lover” in some American movies, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s), who we meet only briefly, in a single scene played mostly on Cléo’s face. Men “hate weakness,” she reasons.

At a time when most Hollywood movies were shot on sets, Cléo de 5 à 7 feels surprisingly free-flowing. There aren’t just mid-scene jump cuts, a la Godard’s work in Breathless, large sections of this movie are just Cléo in the back of a car (she doesn’t drive). Pretty much all of this movie was, in fact, shot on location on the Left Bank of Paris, sometimes involving street scenes the crew just happened upon during filming. In one scene, Cléo shops for hats while we watch the French Republican Guard march behind her on horseback, reflected in mirrors and windows. This could be seen as another way in which the Algerian War figures into the movie, lurking in the background, of the way France’s fear of losing its colonies is reflected in Cléo’s own fear of cancer. Yet Varda states in that Criterion interview that this wasn’t in the script and the Guards just happened to march past as they were shooting that scene. Seeing the opportunity, they rushed to start rolling and get the shot, and that’s the take that’s in the movie.

I could write more about individual scenes in Cléo’s picaresque journey (one which, unlike basically every other one in movie history, actually works if you do it yourself, there’s another Criterion feature that’s just a camera on a motorcycle retracing her route through the Left Bank), but at this point I think I can leave you discover the hidden depths of the movie for yourself. I found Cléo de 5 à 7 fascinating, and I look forward to going through many other Varda films that I haven’t seen as we move forward here at Movie Valhalla.

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