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The Essential Cinema that is Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7

“Looking at others is the first step of feminism. Not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people.” – Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda spent over half a century slap, bang, center in the world of film-making. Looking for the next road, acting on inspiration, shifting focus, constantly innovative and flourishing in her works of art. An extensive filmography that you just cannot comprehend in one go. Documentaries, short films, fiction features – so many vivid, thought-provoking, joyous, integral flavors of ice-cream. How can we possibly try them all?

Once upon a time, Varda was the flag-flyer for women in the boys’ club of the French New Wave. Exclusivity was not the goal, though, in what was immediately, and enduringly, one of cinema’s most celebrated movements. Varda might not have been as well-known as her male comrades back then, but there is no doubt from that era forth, the bowl-cut-haired film-maker would be an essential part of cinematic history.

Agnès Varda

Varda had already got tongues-wagging, and the La Nouvelle Vague ball rolling, with La Pointe Courte, in 1954. And she also made some highly-regarded documentaries, before the majestic Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7) came along. Jacques Demy, the French director who went his own way, would also marry Varda in 1962.

“A poise that attracts the camera like super-glue, Cléo is a troubled soul from the start.”

Cléo from 5 to 7 is a feature film to stand proudly alongside the likes of Breathless or The 300 Blows. Varda was so engaged with her inspiring camera techniques, the varied means of shooting the central character of Cléo provided real substance to the heroine’s jumbled mindset. From afar, close-up, through mirrors, cracked glass – Varda achieved a mixture of points of view through her visual flair.

The enchanting, pensive Corinne Marchand, is a perfect casting choice for Cléo. A poise that attracts the camera like super-glue, Cléo is a troubled soul from the start. Awaiting a couple of hours for the results of a biopsy, she finds herself questioning the life she leads.

At times, a blissful, candid visual record of the Parisian streets in the early 1960s, Cléo from 5 to 7 is free-flowingly divided into twelve chapters. A real-time personal journey, precisely mapped out in a kind of vivid, hip little movie. Impressionistic and avant garde, sure, but glazed with a curvy sense of melancholy.

Agnès Varda

Cléo is very self-aware, more looking for reassurance than vain. She undergoes a steady path as she awaits what she believes will be the worst news. A somewhat pampered young woman, Cléo could be tricky to empathise with here. Craving the confirmation of her own beauty, speaking to herself at moments, she is so very conscious of her self-worth status.

A singer, Cléo even huffs and puffs when one of her hit songs comes on the taxi radio. Is she really complaining about the technical imperfections of the song? And then, later, puts the same song on the jukebox, only to disappointingly notice that nobody is paying attention. On repeated viewings of this marvelous film, Cléo is certainly not a unlikable protagonist, Varda’s intrusively poignant style simply makes us understand.

“Varda’s cinematic eye creates a fitting atmosphere, a kind of modern society snapshot.”

The soul-searching goes way beyond just looking into a mirror. Cléo sees the world around her all too well. The way she treats those around her, the ever-so-defensive reaction to how others might see her. Not entirely a first person narrative, but every now and then we experience Cléo’s passing thoughts, as well as her actions.

Agnès Varda marries her unflinching documentary realism to the film. The plot is relatively straight forward, but we embrace the buoyancy of the trek round Paris in the sixties. The hustle-bustle of the city life, rhythmic in its ornateness, with background conversations, news broadcasts, street entertainers. Varda’s cinematic eye creates a fitting atmosphere, a kind of modern society snapshot. Or, at least, in 1962.

Agnès Varda

Cléo’s emotional temperament bounces from ill-tempered, self-doubt, to glimmers of hope, or comfort. The scene with the composer and the pianist (the former played by Michel Legrand, I might add), is a perfect example of such mood shifts. Playful and genuinely funny for the most part, a tetchy Cléo loses her cool when she feels she is not being taken seriously. The song that she sings, “Sans Toi”, is beautiful.

Understandable, given the anguish of the waiting game Cléo is part of. Existentialism and ego aside, Cléo from 5 to 7 is, while never particularly morbid, concerned with the concept and prospect of death. Antoine, the soldier back from the Algerian war that meets Cléo by chance, also has the the worthiness of dying on his mind. With Cléo’s potential medical results, there is a impassioned common ground between them.

“Corinne Marchand radiates every frame. A luminous lady indeed.”

For Cléo, her reality is literally in black and white. Varda opts to fill the story without colour. Apart from the opening scene, where Cléo has her tarot cards read. Warm hues instead dictate our vision, not until the fortune teller’s correlation of Cléo’s current dilemma do we enter black and white.

The sartorial aspect of the film is huge, too. At the start, perhaps a little disorientated, but at her most free-spirited, Cléo wears a wavy dress with large spots, a wig, and the general visage of a doll not yet broken. At her apartment, Cléo is almost angelic as she puts on a silky, lace robe, and perches on a swing. As Cléo appears to enter her most paranoid state, she’s all in black, including sunglasses, almost hiding from a world watching her.

Agnès Varda

That said, Corinne Marchand radiates every frame. A luminous lady indeed, portraying Cléo as an unlikely source of sorrow, but one which challenges notions of femininity and appearance. It’s quite marvelous to see the character emerge slowly from the somewhat selfish child, to an independent woman, with a much more optimistic outlook.

And those theories and perceptions of the gaze, how we see others, and ourselves, is still very relevant today of course. Cléo is certainly part of that demographic that is under some control of the impact of having men look at you. We see it for ourselves in the film as she parades the Paris sidewalks. But later, Cléo’s fragility and self-worth blossoms into a much more rounded vision of herself. An artist friend, who poses nude, responds to Cléo’s naivety of the art, by saying that people don’t just see her, or her body, but also shapes and ideas.

“Cléo from 5 to 7 is swooning, delectable movie, capturing the importance of self-awareness and a more liberated life.”

Agnès Varda’s camera is in very capable hands. Whether hand-held, shot-reverse-shot, or resting in the corner of a room, Varda creates space that functions the story-telling, and those within it. Perhaps the film-maker is the real voyeur here, expertly consuming us with Cléo’s (and Varda’s) view of Paris. There’s even a small segment of a picture show, a parody silent film, with Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina – how very apt.

Agnès Varda

Cléo from 5 to 7 is swooning, delectable movie, capturing the importance of self-awareness and a more liberated life. The themes are pretty accessible to us all. It is the day-to-day details that make Agnès Varda such a treasure of a film-maker. Her cinematic style is unique, invigorating, and a continuously learning experience. And it’s an education that, thanks to the inimitable Varda, I intend to continue seizing.


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