Cléo from 5 to 7
Directed by Agnès Varda
Starring: Corrinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blanck
Film historians and filmmakers alike cite the French New Wave, Parisian films from the late ’50s to the late ’60s focusing on existentialism while using experimental editing techniques, as one of the most important movements in cinema. Luminaries from this age include Francois Truffant and Jean Lac Goddard. The lone female director of this community, though, was Agnès Varda, and Cléo from 5 to 7 is her most celebrated work.
The Oscars received some heat this year for having an all-male slate of Best Director nominees. Some found the lack of ladies especially galling considering a woman has won the award for the past two years.
Because March is Women’s History Month, and because women STILL only account for 25% of directors in Hollywood (up from 17% in 1998), I decided to make this month’s theme…
What better time than Oscar season to review a film from a genre characterized by pretentious self-importance? Hence, Cléo from 5 to 7 gets Oblogatory’s focus this week.
Cléo is a successful, fresh-faced pop star with three hit singles on the radio. She has a spacious Parisian apartment, a faithful assistant, and a talented songwriting duo eager to give her another hit. Cléo can’t enjoy any of it, though, because she’s waiting for the results of a biopsy test that will likely prove that she has terminal cancer.
The film follows Cléo in real time as she embarks on a series of errands and meetings, each of which she hopes will keep her mind off of her impending doom. Portentously, however, each activity Cléo takes part in has an air of decay about it–a sideshow about a man stabbing himself, a silent film involving an ambulance driver, a tarot-card reading with nothing but death cards. As these episodes stack up, Cléo is forced to confront her selfish, vapid existence and find something truly meaningful in what little time she has left.
I dread every French New Wave film set upon me. I know it will be artistically ambitious and responsible for cinematic techniques widely used today, yet watching a filmmaker’s self-insert of a protagonist sail to and from tiny islands of plot across vast oceans of navel-gazing themes with runtimes longer than this sentence makes the viewing experience feel like homework.
Color me shocked, then, upon watching Cléo from 5 to 7. It’s only 90 minutes, uses every episode to cumulative effect, has stakes to drive the plot, focuses on a singularly crafted protagonist, builds its themes subtly, and STILL manages to radiate the impeccable style that is this movement’s signature.
Though this movie is serious, it’s never heavy. It pivots its tone from tragicomic to romantic effortlessly, and impresses its profound message upon its viewers with a light touch.
For all the praise I heap upon it, though, Cléo from 5 to 7 doesn’t always succeed with its experiments. Early on, the movie flits between black-and-white film and color… only to never do it again. Later, the audience is privy to characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, yet these glimpses provide no new information; they merely state things the viewer can already see. Additionally, the film has chapters, and distracting (though gorgeous) titles appear every few minutes. The audience doesn’t need this reminder because we already know it’s in real time, a gimmick High Noon executed seamlessly a decade earlier.
These are, honestly, minor problems, ones which I surprisingly appreciate. They reveal Vardàs’s staggering creativity and willingness to try every tool at hand in order to get her story across to the audience. For each failed experiment in this movie, there’s four or five successes. One sequence has Cléo singing a haunting ballad as the camera rotates around her. As the song progresses, the background changes from her apartment to black curtains, both symbolizing death as well as what Cléo imagines she’ll look like performing this song on a stage. Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trick happens when the camera needs to move from the assistant’s face to behind Cléo’s hair. The transition is a stylized wipe that follows behind the assistant, giving the cut a comic-book feel. It works, adding to the movie’s pizzazz. If getting these brilliant moments means sitting through a couple of awkward ideas, I’m more than game to follow Cléo… from 5 to 7, at least.
This movie’s age, foreign language, and monochrome lens will turn some viewers off. Others, however, will be delighted by its sumptuous costumes, production design, and peak mid-century aesthetic. As mentioned before, this film feels breezy, and the camera is so inventive that most adults will be surprised when the movie ends. Speaking of which, the film’s ending is especially meaningful, and audiences will be surprised by how much the film had to say without using heavy-handed preaching.
I could easily see this movie being a friend group’s pick on a weekend afternoon while everyone drinks white wine and eats charcuterie. Cléo would probably request that you wear fancy hats while doing so.