Cleo from 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 03/16/09

After watching Agnès Varda’s interesting 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, I decided that it was time to catch up and watch more of her films.  Interestingly enough, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley is currently doing a series on her as well throughout the month.  Although I have the best intentions of catching something there, I already had Cleo from 5 to 7 at home by the time that I’d seen that.

Varda is associated with the French New Wave, the only female filmmaker among them.  But, as I have actually been exploring the French New Wave more of late, that categorization is more one of time and familiarity and novelty in approaching cinema, rather than any particularly specific style.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a nice example of the New Wave in that sense, with Varda’s very curious eye scanning the world, seeing Paris, seeing character, in a very specific and different way.  Since it’s been years since I saw her tragic masterpiece, Vagabond (1984), I can’t say how much it has in common with that film, but I did find it interesting, the way that Varda uses her camera as an eye, as her eye, as she does in The Gleaners and I, even shooting scenes of passing motorists from the backseat of a taxi.  She is looking at the city, at the people, constantly, never passive.

Also, through the first hour or more, the film is also fascinated with mirrors and mirrored surfaces.  As Cléo strolls the busy downtown of Paris, through the neighborhoods and shops and cafes, the reflective surfaces are ever-present, reflecting all of the things in the world, but quite specifically Cléo, who is trying to come to terms with her potentially terminal illness.  There seems to be a statement of sorts about gender, about women in particular.  Cléo and her assistant both are extremely superstitious.  The film begins with Cléo having her fortune read by Tarot cards.  I don’t know exactly what to make of the superstition stuff, but it’s there quite prevalently.

The film transpires in a sort of “real time”, with “chapters” signifying the passage of time, from scene to scene, which infuses the film with a constantly moving energy.  Some of the images are strange, accidental, happenstance.  Some are like visions, though really captured from the streets of Paris: a man swallowing live frogs and another man piercing his arm with a needle.  The streets of Paris are a side-show, a vivid world of fashion, men, ever-changing roads, parks.  It’s a litany, in a sense, which also gives the feeling of an internal view.  Is it Cléo’s?  Or is it the camera’s?  Either way, it’s utterly Varda’s eye, Varda’s aesthetic and curiously playful gaze at the world.

There is a lot going on, as I have alluded to.  More perhaps, than a quick note on the film could hope to capture.  It’s ultimately a film about life, though Cléo is constantly fearing her own death.  She is surrounded by life and a fascinating world, and in the end, does she manage to realize it all?  It’s an interesting film, feminist, not lacking in political perspectives, but much more focused on identity, the self, the world, and life.  Quite beautiful in its way.


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