An Appreciation – Cléo from 5 to 7
Of the French New Wave filmmakers, Agnès Varda stands on a pillar of her own. Although her name may not be the first mentioned – shamefully – along the likes of Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, Varda’s contributions to the movement are just as important, if not more so. Her debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955) predates the start of the New Wave by a good five years. Many of her films have stood the test of time, offering a female point of view in a world dominated by male contemporaries. Some might say that her work has aged better than other filmmakers of her generation – including her husband, Jacques Demy. Varda was active right up to her passing in 2019, age 90, leaving a lifetime’s worth of fascinating narrative and documentary features.
Varda’s greatest gift was in her humanity – in the way she was able to observe society honestly. This is best exemplified in her most famous masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). It’s the story of a character who goes through a transformation in how she sees herself, how she sees the world, and how she chooses to exist in that world. Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a young pop singer facing an existential crisis. We learn early on that Cléo is waiting on a test result to determine if she has cancer. The “5 to 7” of the title represents the time of day in which Cléo waits to hear from her doctor. In real time, we follow her as she travels throughout Paris, going about her day with this looming fear hovering nearby. The premise creates a ticking clock situation, as the anticipation slowly mounts.
But the story isn’t just about test results or a journey throughout the city – it is also a journey into Cléo’s very identity. As a young pop star, Cléo’s persona has been based off her physical beauty. She wears fancy dresses and wears a wig that makes her hair prim and pretty. An early scene has her and her assistant Angèle (Dominique Davray) going to a hat shop, in hopes that purchasing a new piece can help alleviate Cléo’s worry. She has been assigned to be the perfect image of health and beauty, but her impending diagnosis changes all of that. What good is her physical attributes when her own mortality is now knocking at her door? We have all been guilty of looking and acting a certain way to fit into cultural norms, but women are burdened with an overload of pressures to dress, speak, and behave in unrealistic fashion. They are bombarded with advertisements and messages all pushing them to be either a sexual vixen or a submissive homemaker. Cléo was molded to fit this expectation, but the possibility of having cancer has caused her to re-evaluate herself, her values, and her self-worth.
Cléo’s mindset is displayed through the running motif of mirrors and reflection. Mirrors and glass are everywhere here, and in almost every scene. Cléo is constantly looking at her reflection, at first trying to find the reassurance that her appearance can somehow overcome any ailments. She admires herself in a mirror, almost believing that a person with her beauty couldn’t possibly have cancer as that would be a sign of weakness. She believes that her looks are her strength, which of course is a shallow sentiment and is quickly dismissed as the story progresses. Varda’s direction places mirrors all over the place, from the background to foreground, in restaurants and shops and even out on the street. As Cléo moves from one point to another, the mirrors gradually become disjointed. Single-pane mirrors turn to fragmented collages and finally to broken glass, signaling Cléo’s superficiality slowly being chipped away.
The key turning point happens halfway into the film, when Cléo retreats to her apartment. The set design and art direction has the apartment bare except for a bed, piano, a few chairs, and a vanity desk. Here, Cléo tries to form herself into the perfect version of a pop star, by fixing up her hair and wearing an extravagant, feathery night gown. She looks herself over in a hand mirror, building up confidence and making sure everything about her is perfect as she waits on her lover, José (José Luis de Villallonga). But all that effort is gone to waste once José arrives. Instead of acknowledging her and spending quality time together, José barely shows any intimacy before rushing out of the door. The work Cléo put into making herself look good for him goes nowhere, hinting at how their relationship is meaningless and empty.
The sense of loneliness and despair is amplified in the following sequence, when two music producers – Cléo’s pianist (Michel Legrand, also the film’s composer) and lyricist (Serge Korber) – arrive to rehearse some new songs. Cléo tries to keep up her façade, smiling and sashaying around the piano. Yet this charade soon ends once Cléo starts singing the song “Sans Toi.” The song itself is a heartbreaking ballad, full of longing, describing a person’s desperate need for someone else. Cléo sings it like a full-on performance, full of passion and emotion. Notice the way the camera slowly glides around the piano towards her, at one point Cléo stops looking at the lyric sheet and stares directly into the frame (and to us). Her singing feels less like a rehearsal and more like a confession. And yet, despite how incredible her performance is, the pianist and lyricist still do not take Cléo seriously. They treat her merely a vehicle for their musical ambitions, not as a fully formed person. Cléo snaps back at them, saying that they view her like “An idiot or China doll.”
The second half works as the opposite of the first, as Cléo does a reversal and starts taking control of her very being. She changes from the white nightgown to an all-black dress and removes her wig to reveal her real hair. She rushes outside and wanders on the street, without a true sense of direction or purpose. Things are noticeably different at this point. When Cléo looks at a mirror now, her reflection is obstructed by writing, and so she turns her gaze towards a street performance. She has now assumed the role of the observer. Although Cléo is still objectified and judged by people on the street, she doesn’t allow it to dictate how she wants to present herself. She is no longer controlled by it – she tries to break free from those social constraints to live and act however she feels fit.