An Appreciation – Cléo from 5 to 7
Now the observer, Cléo becomes acutely aware of the world around her. Varda structures the second half as two parallel stories: Cléo and life in Paris. The story takes place on the first day of summer, where the feeling of renewal and sense of possibility are at their strongest. Varda takes ample opportunity to view life happening everywhere. People are constantly walking, talking, driving, and playing in the backgrounds of scenes. Cléo’s mortality forces her to be more present, to be more aware of the people she walks by or sits next to at a café. The visuals jump into her point of view, as she looks around noticing the people and places around her. Cléo becomes aware of people interacting – on a few occasions the narrative will stop to listen to conversations happening on the periphery. Although Cléo’s life maybe ending soon, the lives around her – of people she (and we) will never get to know – will move forward. Everyone has a story to tell, whether happy or sad. Everyone has unique experiences that are worth sharing if given the chance.
Corinne Marchand’s central performance is the key to the entire film. As Cléo, Marchand must pull off a tricky balancing act, shifting between the shallow, superficial acts of the first half, and then switching things around in the second when Cléo dives into the depths of her psyche. Marchand is successful at displaying both sides of the character. Cléo is far more complex than we would first surmise. She has spent much of her life pretending to be something she is not, and when she finally cannot stand it anymore, she takes matters into her own hands. It’s a mix of the vibrant ingénue and the realistic, fully dimensional woman underneath. Marchand’s work is some of the best of the entire French New Wave, deserving to be praised right alongside the likes of Anna Karina, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Jean-Paul Belmondo, to name a few.
Agnès Varda was trained as a photographer, and that skill is incorporated in nearly every frame. The cinematography (Paul Bonis, Alain Levent, Jean Rabier) has the camera moving elegantly through scenes, following Cléo like a quiet partner. At the hat shop, notice the way it follows her between stands, circling around as she moves about. Other times, the camera will sit and allow characters to exist in silence, letting them breathe and allowing the atmosphere to dominate the tone. Every visual composition is perfectly balanced without calling attention to itself. Where other New Wave filmmakers inject a jumpy, kinetic vibe, Varda’s style is far more relaxed and patient. This does not mean she doesn’t allow for some experimentation. There are several instances where Varda will play with cinematic form. The opening scene with the tarot reader is shot in bold color, working in stark contrast with the black and white aesthetic of the film’s real world. There’s also the scene where Cléo stops by a movie theater to watch a silent film, starring Godard, Karina, and Jean-Claude Brialy. These moments have a spontaneous, playful feeling – exemplifying the moods and attitude of the era.
Cléo’s transformation is bolstered by her interaction with two people. The first is with her friend, Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck). When we first meet her, Dorothée is posing as a nude model for a sculpting class. Cléo can’t understand how she would be willing to let herself be seen naked and vulnerable in front of strangers, but Dorothée does not see it that way. She is comfortable in this setting because she does it on her own terms – she is the one in control. The students don’t see her as a thing to objectified, but as a source of inspiration in their own art. Each of their sculptures are made differently – a reflection of not just Dorothée as a model but of their own artistic sensibilities. This is the perspective Cléo wants to have. Where Cléo wears a dress all in black, Dorothée’s is a mixture of colors and shapes, reminiscent of a disjointed mirror we saw in an earlier scene. Cléo and Dorothée’s interaction is punctuated by a shattered mirror, in which Cléo’s reflection – metaphorically – is altered permanently.
But it’s not until Cléo meets the soldier, Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) that her arc comes full circle. Meeting at a park, Cléo and Antoine talk on equal level. Unlike everyone else in her life, Antoine treats Cléo like a human being, listening and offering empathy to her plight. Antoine is also in a ticking clock situation, as he must return to deployment soon. He might be one of the few people that can understand Cléo’s anxieties about facing death. The two share their hopes and fears, they talk and flirt without any expectations for it to be more than that. In a lesser film, their back and forth may have blossomed into romance, but Varda aims for something more substantial – something true and human. We learn that Cléo’s real name is “Florence,” and it is this revelation that she becomes fully unmasked. The person that “Cléo” was at the beginning has vanished. In her place is a person who can embrace themselves for who they are, separate from anybody else. That is why, when Cléo learns that she does in fact have cancer, her response is not with despair but with hope. She will be able to face the disease as her real self. Whatever the future brings, she is content that she will experience it with complete and earnest honesty.
Cléo from 5 to 7 is a masterful film, examining social issues that are just as relevant today as they were in 1962. It is full of understanding and heart, focusing on a single character whose story is representative of names and faces we pass by every day. Cléo faces down the misogyny and objectification of society, the same kind we speculate Varda experienced in her own life. Perhaps through Cléo’s story, we can examine how we see the world and the way in which we connect with others. If we took a hard, long look at ourselves in the mirror, would we like what we see?