Cleo from 5 to 7
Real time with Agnes Varda
All this month Turner Classic Movies has been shining a spotlight on the trailblazing women of the global film industry. And while Classic Movie Hub is in the habit of concentrating on the top Hollywood glam of the classic era, I would like to take our focus away from tinsel town and onward to the city of lights to highlight the work of the trailblazing writer/director/editor/hair-style icon and all-around auteur Agnes Varda.
The Belgium born filmmaker began her film career in the 1950s as part of the French New Wave, specifically The Left Bank. Like the famed French New Wavers, The Left Bank created films that were experimental in their form and content, breaking the mold created by the Hollywood Studios. However, unlike the “French New Wave proper,” the Left Bank did not begin their careers as young film critics and avid connoisseurs (think Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) but instead tended to be older than their “right bank” counterparts and tended to be involved with other art forms, most notably literature. Despite creating some of cinema’s most artistically influential films, Varda did not grow up a cinephile. In fact, she barely watched any films in her youth, focusing more on the plastic arts. After spending her early artistic career as a photographer and photojournalist, Varda founded her own film studio in 1955 despite having no training in the medium. Her first film, La Pointe Courte, was a critical success, but her biggest success would come 7 years later with the film Cleo from 5 to 7.
Cleo from 5 to 7 is a fictional narrative that tells the story of Cleo, a rising French pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer but must wait two hours to confirm the diagnosis. She spends the next two hours meandering around Paris, awaiting the possibly catastrophic news. And that is the film. You see, because of Varda’s early career as a photographer and a “not-seer-of-movies,” the audience does not experience the film in what I like to call “Hollywood time” i.e through scenes held together through montage and manipulation of time. Instead Varda forces the audiences to wander around Paris with Cleo in real time, trailing along at her languid, steady pace. Rather than following the actions that lead the film protagonist to the film’s ultimate conclusion, the audience instead must follow the character as she waits for the diagnosis final conclusion. And through that waiting, Varda offers an alternative viewing experience.
The film contains a documentary-esque realism that captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s Parisian aesthetic while retaining its relentless first person narrative. Because Cleo is waiting, she has ample time to simply watch. And as she watches, we (the audience) watch through her. Thanks to Varda’s career as photojournalist, Paris is filmed with an almost clinical precision. In real time, we are privy to its posh bistros and quaint cafes, its young lovers and old enemies, its beautiful people and dirty pigeons. Paris is not only romanticized by the camera but also serves as distraction from possible imminent disaster. It’s breathing, yet numb – just like Cleo as she waits for answers. And in this waiting, in this watching, Cleo grows as a character.
Although Cleo is our protagonist, the average moviegoer might have some trouble relating to her. As a rising Parisian pop-star, she suffers from trappings of not only show business but of the patriarchal nature of 1960s French culture. She is self-involved, vapid, and pampered, even uttering the line “as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive” But when given the news she very well might have cancer, there is a shift in her psyche. For two hours all she can do is wait and wonder. Wonder about life and death, about reality and about the universe itself. By giving sight to the external world, to realities of the mundane, Cleo is forced to realize that if she dies, the world can and will continue without her. This existentialist notion is furthered after she meets Antoine, a French solider on leave from fighting in the Algerian War, who confides to Cleo he believes the French are dying for nothing. And although there is a new uncertainty in Cleo’s being after coming to such conclusions about life and the nature of the universe, it does offer her a certain clarity as to her place in it.
Whether she has cancer or not at this point seems almost inconsequent but I won’t spoil the ending for you. So, please, find out the diagnosis yourself as I implore you to watch this film when it airs on TCM, which is Tuesday October 27th at 9:30pm. And while we’re talking about Varda, you should check out The Gleaners and I because, well…it’s just very good.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub