Cleo from 5 to 7

30 April 2010

Agnès Varda's second feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, was first released in 1962 and is now part of the British Film Institute's retrospective of her work (April 30-May31). That the film is re-released nationwide this weekend provides fitting opportunity for a review.
Varda's reputation is impressive and intriguing. As someone whose career seemingly grew apart from but alongside the French New Wave, she has both enjoyed and endured association to that group and is now apparently regarded by many as its “godmother”.
If that label is somewhat erroneous if affectionate – there is a certain romantic appeal to any of the nouvelle vague film-makers being consciously influenced by a female contemporary in the same way they were by Jean-Pierre Melville – it is not difficult to see the connection. To begin with, Varda's second feature film bears many similarities to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, which was released a year earlier. Both films were shot on location in Paris; at times the filming seems improvised; Godard himself stars in a cameo, opposite Anna Karina; finally, there is a casual 'fleetingness' to both films – I'll return to this last point.
The plot of Cleo from 5 to 7 centres around a successful pop singer, Cléo (Corinne Marchand). While waiting until she can collect the results of a medical examination that will reveal whether or not she has terminal cancer, she meets with her friend Angèle (Dominique Davray), a lover (José Luis de Villalonga), fellow musicians and wanders the streets of Paris. Feeling a great deal of anxiety about the way she is perceived by people and society, she retreats to the quiet of a park, where she has an unexpected encounter with a young soldier on leave, named Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller).
Early on in the film there is extensive use made of mirrors. If Cléo is not reassuring herself of her own external beauty by staring half-quizzically, half-admiringly at herself in a mirror, she is surrounded entirely by the walled mirror of a restaurant. Sometimes, Jean Rabier's camera films Cléo entirely in reflection, her actual body out of frame.
When Cléo's normal reassurance eventually fails her, and she recoils in horror from both herself and the modern city that presents her own reflection all-too-often, we might recall Sartre's Nausea, a novel widely regarded as the canonical fiction of existentialism.
Cléo's existential dilemma seems a bit glib, a bit literal. It arises out of her fear of death; the potential of terminal cancer propels her self-awareness. More sentimental films have been made of such material. That Cléo is a rather spoilt, middle-class pop singer disconnected from the reality of the Parisian life vividly captured in the film makes her emotional epiphany problematic.
The catalyst for Cléo's literal flight from the crowded streets is the image of a street performer puncturing himself with a needle for a mob of onlookers. (A precursor is a different street performer eating frogs.) It seems only natural, given the horror of this image, that Cléo's retreat would further disconnect her from society; the film, however, does not explore this in any great depth. As the final third unfolds, the narrative becomes increasingly narrow, as evident in the lack of people around Cléo and in her brief encounter with Antoine.
Varda is sensitive to Cléo's unhappiness, though. By employing mirrors and reflections so strongly early on, the film sets up a telling relationship between Cléo's subjective self-image and an objective viewpoint. In a scene in which she plays one of her own songs on a café jukebox, Cléo circles the restaurant noting people's reactions. Her point-of-view shots show customers are either indifferent to her presence or opposed to it, looking at her direct. Varda's camera, meanwhile, in the 'reaction' shots in which Cléo herself appears, sees things different; society is not as hostile as Cléo makes out.
Cléo's superficial image of herself – and the staleness that stems from it – is a by-product of a rapidly-changing society. At the beginning of the 1960s, after much post-war stagnation, Paris was finally evolving into a truly modern city. Major plans were being implemented for the city's motorways, infrastructure, its international airports and tourist industry.
The freshness of this newly urbanised metropolis and its rejuvenated economy is captured very well. We often follow Cléo from an inexpressively high angle on the Paris streets, evoking perhaps a feeling of observation, the novelty of casual surveillance; the camera keeps her central to the unstaged, bustling frame.
Several scenes unfold on vehicles of modern transport. Early in the film, Cléo is chauffeured around the city by her friend Angèle, who has just learned to drive. Angèle indicates each turn by holding out her appropriate arm, as if on a bicycle. Much later in the film, Cléo travels via bus (it's “more exciting” than a taxi) to see her doctor and find the results of her test; Antoine accompanies her. The pair share a lengthy, intimate silence amidst the otherwise chaos of public transport. It is an affecting scene; charming, too: by camera trickery, Antoine leans out of the bus and snatches a flower from a passing floral cart to give to Cléo. It is both artsy and romantic; cinematic, Parisian.
Not surprisingly for a film of its title, Cleo from 5 to 7 reminds us constantly of time. The film itself unfolds mostly in real-time; its form is episodic, with timeslots appearing on-screen to declare new if arbitrary chapters; the very essence of Cléo's narrative arc is to do with time – she is 'killing time' until she finds out if her 'time is up'.
This concept goes particularly well with the film's brief if indicative preoccupation with modern transport. The two examples above are used to different effect. In the sequence with Antoine, the camera remains fixed in-vehicle, with Cléo and her new acquaintance in close-up. As the city behind them twists and turns, with the bus moving through the city, we become aware of the scene's length. As Cléo nears her doctor geographically, time both lingers and disappears, its presence declared by its own self-evaporation.
In the sequence with Angèle, the frame-rate is sped up enough for us to note the formal trickery but not enough to seem farcical. The point is expressed well: Cléo's negotiation of the city's vast, meandering geography makes it seem small, but her internal anxiety lingers all the same – in fact, that Cléo can get from A to B quicker reminds her of nothing if not her own physical limits. (Similarly, for all her superstitions in the film – it begins with a doomed tarot card reading – the outcome of Cléo's biopsy is in the hands of biological hazard.)
This notion of time plays a crucial thematic role in the film, but it also affects our own viewing of it. As I wrote earlier, there is a sense of 'fleetingness' to it. A sense not so much of events having been missed, but of events being missed. Godard achieved it in Breathless via the jump-cut, but Varda's film is a much subtler work.
This fleetingness is what makes the film quite Modernist. There is a strong sense – both formally and thematically – that the film is a documentary in some ways, one that was knowingly capturing a specific place at a certain point in time. Indeed, Paris has never quite been filmed the same way as it was here and in the early nouvelle vague films. There's an affection for it here that seems in some way genuine, or even natural; today's attempts seem limp or forced in comparison.
As I wrote in the inaugural post of this blog, part of the reason for setting it up was to reinvigorate a critical awareness that for whatever reason waned in our online community over the last year or so (if you haven't joined the boards yet, please do).
By this, I don't mean that we have to love every film we see, but we should love the experience of watching it, regardless of the film itself. In his ever-insightful editorial of the May issue of Sight & Sound, Nick James writes on the notion of cinephilia and questions what might be meant by “cine-love”. Quoting Serge Daney in his posthumously-released autobiography Postcards from the Cinema, James's editorial ends with the following words: “Arriving in extremis, almost too late, pretending to believe that the banquet is still taking place, is without a doubt the essence of what we call cinephilia. The cinephile isn't nostalgic for a golden age that [s]he did or didn't know, and of which [s]he thinks there has been no equal since. Rather, the cinephile is the one who, watching a film that has just been released, already feels the passing.”
Watching a film that has just been released. That in this instance Cleo from 5 to 7 opens in cinemas again nearly fifty years after it first appeared to the world, this sense of fleeting, of passing, seems doubly magnified. Whatever, it's a deceptively subtle film definitely worth paying to see. And much like Cléo's own brief time prior to her examination results, whatever the reaction, it's the love of the reacting itself that counts.
Dir: Agnès Varda | Year: 1962 | Country: France
Running Time: 86 mins approx | With: Corinne Marchand,
Dominique Davray, Antoine Bourseiller, José Luis de Villalonga