Walking in the Streets
Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7/Cleo de 5 a 7
The Agnes Varda retrospective at the UW Cinematheque continued last night with a screening of perhaps Varda’s most famous film, Cleo from 5 to 7
(for anyone interested in watching this film, the Criterion Collection recently released this film on DVD)
. The film, released in 1962, was contemporaneous with the French New Wave, and shares both some of the other New Wave’s narrative and aesthetic techniques (the documentary-like location shoots on the streets of Paris, the disjunctive editing and sound, the jump-cuts, etc.), but with a feminist slant not usually found in other nouvelle vague
films. Some debate continues as to whether Varda, and by extension her films, are truly an example of the New Wave, or an important precursor and contemporary. Varda, who began her artistic life as a photographer, began making feature films in 1954, five years before Chabrol would officially kick off the New Wave, and she was not associated with the Cahiers du cinema
clique of cinephiles (and, for the most part, political conservatives); instead Varda was associated with the Left Bank filmmakers (such as Alain Resnais, who worked as an editor on Varda’s first feature film, last week’s La Pointe Courte
, and Chris Marker), marked not only by the place where they live, but also by their overtly leftist politics.
Cleo from 5 to 7
tells the story of Cleo (Corrine Marchand), a Parisian pop singer, who awaits the fateful results of some medical tests; she fears that she has cancer. The film takes place, in close to real-time, over the course of two hours, as Cleo anxiously waits for the results, which are due at 7pm; the film itself is divided into 13 chapters. White titles superimposed on the image track announce the beginning of each chapter, which are named after one or more of the characters taking part in the sequence. Also, each chapter title displays how much time is elapses in each chapter, with some chapters as short as three minutes, with the longest, and last, being 15 minutes long (an interesting aside, while the film begins around 5pm, in the introductory coda, you can see a clock which says it is five minutes after 5pm, the titles of the thirteenth and final chapter says the chapter ends at 6:30pm, not 7pm, which would make the film actual real-time; I don’t exactly know why commentary on the film assumes that it takes place over two hours, it’s most likely the title). While the film is almost exclusively in exquisite B & W photography (Varda’s talents as a photographer again mesh well with the work of her cinematographer, Jean Rabier), the film begins with a color sequence; an overhead shot from above a table, as Cleo has her fortune read by Tarot card reader, Madame Irma. Initially we only hear Cleo and Madame Irma off-screen in voice-over, we see their hands picking and flipping over cards, as Madame Irma weaves her tale over close-ups of each card (later in the sequence, shots of Cleo and Madame Irma are in B & W). Cleo is more and more apprehensive as Irma describes people in her life; finally, Cleo, to her horror, draws the Death card. Irma explains that the Death card represents profound change, but ushers Cleo out, refusing to read her palm, and then confiding to some man that she has cancer. The remainder of the movie explores the nature of Cleo’s change.
The image of Cleo at the beginning of the film is doll-like (or childlike, as you prefer), smartly dressed in a white and black polka-dot dress and with an elaborate, very blonde bouffant hairdo. Cleo, while anxious over the impending medical tests, still takes time to preen over her appearance. Mirrors are ubiquitous in the first half of the movie; and when she meets her assistant Angele in a cafe, the much older woman treats Cleo like a child, adjusting her clothes and fussing over her medical condition, telling her not to worry. As they walk onto the streets of Paris (the film is replete with documentary-like shots of Paris streets, we really get a portrait of Paris in the early 1960s, like in other French New Wave films of that era), they pass a hat shop; in the window is a black fur hat that Cleo wants to buy, Angele protests, saying that it is a winter hat and it is the summer (we later learn that it is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, notes the Antoine, the soldier, that Cleo later meets). Cleo goes into the shop and tries on a myriad of hats, looking at herself in the mirror, before choosing the one that she originally wanted to buy. Frankly, all of the hats, especially the one that Cleo buys, look patently ridiculous, which leaves you wondering if Cleo just likes looking at herself in the mirror, seeking attention. Angele and Cleo take a taxi cab back to Cleo’s apartment, about a five-minute long sequence, many of it shot looking out through the windshield of the taxi (again revealing Paris, circa 1962). The radio plays one of Cleo’s songs, and with false modesty, she confesses to being the singer; when a car load of young men pass by trying to get her attention, she feigns ignoring then, but you can see she secretly relished the attention. The cab driver, a working-class woman, relates a tale of how she had to fight a group of young men who refused to pay their fare (standing up for herself is not something that you can easily imagine Cleo doing), and on the radio, a newscaster reads news bulletins, the first of which concerns the ongoing war in Algeria and the political unrest rocking France.
Cleo’s apartment is a huge, spacious (if not cavernous) one room studio, almost completely decorated in white (their are some black curtains and dressing screens). The room is sparsely furnished, dominated by a covered, white-lacy bed; kittens roam the entire room freely. The mise en scene of the room enhances the feeling that we are almost looking at a dollhouse, a feeling further reinforced when, with the help of Angele, Cleo changes out of her dress and covers her slip with a frilly, feathered negligee. After watching her “exercise,” (if you call hanging from a bar for a few seconds exercise), playing with her kittens, sitting on a swing, in the apartment, and acting coyly, childishly around her lover, Jose (Madame Irma notes when looking into her past via the Tarot cards, that a man made her; Jose is a suave businessman, and at least a decade older than Cleo; he refers to her as his Cleopatra), who drops by for a few moments, you get the impression that Cleo is a caricature of femininity.
After Jose leaves, Cleo is visited by some of her collaborators, Bob, the pianist (played by Michel Legrand, who also wrote the film’s music; just a note, Varda married Jacques Demy), and a lyricist. They mock her and treat her like a spoilt child. They attempt to rehearse a new number, singing a despairing song. As Cleo sings, the camera rotates around her, the background changing from bright white to dark black, until Cleo, now crying, is singing and looking right into the camera, with the background completely black. There is a cut out, Cleo was actually standing in front of some black curtains, and she tells Bob and the lyricist that she can not abide the song. She retreats behind a dressing screen, changing into a more chic, black dress and ripping the blonde, bouffant wig off her head, her own hair is a simple, shoulder length cut. Taking her black hat, she storms out of her apartment.
Cleo walks through the streets and boulevards of Paris, through the throngs of people who barely pay attention to her (the ones that do are invariably men, who look at her as a physical object). After being disgusted by some street performers, she retreats into a cafe. She walks around the cafe, the moving camera duplicating her POV, as she scans the other patrons, who all but ignore her. She goes to jukebox, plays one of her singles, dons some sunglasses and walks around the cafe, trying to garner some attention, but the other cafe patrons ignore her, one even remarking how they can’t think over all of this noise. Cleo runs away from the cafe. As Cleo walks down the street, we get shot/reverse shots of Cleo and then the other people on the streets looking at her, probably wonder why she is acting so strangely; these shots are intercut with brief shots of the film’s other characters, Angele, Irma, Bob, the lyricist, the cafe patrons all sitting in impeccably framed in something like a portraiture, looking almost into the camera, looking at Cleo. Here we have a woman, whose identity is elaborately constructed, based upon how others see her, but she can not garner any serious attention, only frivolous or sexual attention (I think we are supposed to make connections between Cleo and the way she acts around the street performers, who inflict pain upon themselves in order to gain attention and money). The people on the street ignore her, and everyone else in her life doesn’t take her seriously, even though she believes her situation is grave (most of them think she is a hypochondriac, both Angele and Jose don’t take her seriously, or downplay her affliction, and the other musicians make fun of her).
After this sequence, Cleo goes to visit her friend Dorothee, who poses nude for art students making sculptures. Dorothee is everything that Cleo is not. She is earthy, a free spirit, who doesn’t get too worked up by her appearance, she has nothing to hide (Cleo confesses that she would not be able to model). Dorothee is a seemingly independent woman (she drives, unlike Cleo, even though she does so badly). They pick up some film canisters and visit Dorothee’s boyfriend, a projectionist at a local film theater. They stop to watch a comedy short, a pastiche of silent film comedy which stars Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, and Eddie Constantine, and hinges on the hero’s perceptions, which are obscured by his sunglasses. It is interesting that both of these sequences involving Dorothee involve watching/looking. Cleo, like the camera and the art students observes Dorothee’s naked body; Cleo, like the audience, watches the silent comedy, introducing a little bit of levity into her life, probably when she most needs it. It is also the last time we see a mirror in the film, as Cleo breaks one as they walk down the street, which isn’t as a devastating blow as you would think given the superstitious nature that Cleo displayed (but perhaps this was exacerbated by the smothering, mother-like attitude of Angele, who constantly reminds Cleo about things bringing bad luck). Is Cleo becoming an observer of life around her, rather than more worried about how others observe her?
After she leaves, Dorothee, Cleo retreats to a park, seeking some solitude. There she meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the war in Algeria. While trying to pick her up, he reveals himself to be a sensitive and caring man, who appears ignorant of Cleo’s professional career. He appears in the both the shortest chapter (12, entitled “Antoine,” which according to the titles is 3 minutes long) and the longest (13, entitled “Cleo and Antoine,” which takes place over 15 minutes). It is too Antoine that Cleo reveals her true name, Florence, her name “Cleo” being short for Cleopatra, obviously an invention of Jose. Antoine volunteers to accompany Cleo to the hospital, if in return she will accompany him to the train station. They decide the take the bus, making for a leisurely ride to the hospital. With Antoine, who seems to genuinely care for Cleo’s fate and well-being, Cleo is open and at ease, reflecting some newfound maturity (she eagerly desires to trade pictures and addresses with Antoine, evoking her new found attachment to him). At the end of the movie, the revelation that the test came back positive, that she does have cancer, is treated almost with a shrug (the doctor assures her that after two months of chemotherapy she will be fine, will she retreat under wig again? I somewhat doubt it, at least not the bouffant number she was wearing in the beginning of the film), as if Cleo is now resigned and determined to move onto a new phase of her life (much like the example provided by Antoine, who seems somewhat unfazed by the prospects of returning to war in Algeria). Facing mortality, walking through the streets of Paris, Cleo finally takes steps to taking control of her own life.