In the distant past of April 2020, Chris and I dove deep into an episode of our podcast Cinema Dual on the films of French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Though technically not my first experience with Varda, that week of watching Varda’s movies was eye-opening, to such an extent that when Criterion announced they were going to release a Blu Ray box set of her complete filmography, I jumped at the chance to catch up on everything I had missed. Each post will cover 1 of the 15 discs in the set.
In the supplemental materials Martin Scorsese tells a story of being mildly intimidated by the presence of Agnès Varda who was visiting his film set. He was asked to tell which of her films was his favourite, and he stammered out Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). Varda lightly chided him, saying that’s what everyone says. She has a point too: when she passed in 2019 anyone reflecting on her importance as a filmmaker typically cited Cléo as the film to watch. I have always regarded the film at a respectful distance, but upon a third viewing and with a lot of reading up, I’m ready to call this a film I enjoy.
Cléo from 5 to 7 follows the afternoon of the titular singer Cléo as she nervously awaits test results which will tell her whether or not she has cancer. The film begins in color, as she receives an ominous tarot card reading, only for the reality (and remaining of the film) to take place in a more somber black and white. Cléo attempts to distract herself by shopping around Paris with her maid, always noticing her appearance in mirrors or in the gaze of strangers. Eventually she returns to her apartment, where visits by both her inattentive boyfriend and infantilizing musical partners drive her to take control of herself and face her fears.
This is represented by the film’s signature moment, when she sings (and not overdubbed according to Varda) “Sans Toi”, a beautifully grim ballad that captures that moment of self-realization. From there, she goes back out into the world, unburdened by fucks to give. Notably she puts on one of her songs on a restaurant jukebox where no one cares about it, and visits her friend Dorothée, who works as a model and whose body is a source of pride, not anxiety. The film ends with an encounter with a French soldier on leave from the Algerian War named Antoine, in whom she finds a kindred spirit faced with his own mortality. He accompanies her to her test results, which are sobering, but she resolves to fight, having finally lost her sense of fear.
From that description, it’s not hard to draw out the almost De Beauvoir-like twin existential and feminist themes that would make it resonate then and now. But the many clocks in the film don’t just represent mortality, they represent our actual progress through real time (apparently causing something of a nightmare for production.)That real time nature gives Varda a chance to throw in some more of her favourite recurring themes. There’s a discussion of trees, which will get picked up on again in Vagabond, and a news report listened to in the car on the Algerian War is just one of several references to that conflict in the film, let alone Varda’s larger political interests. And the short film that Cléo and Dorothée watch is Les fiancés du pont MacDonald (1961), something that Varda shot to fill time, but also to make fun of her friend for always wearing sunglasses, an idea that will come up again in Faces Places.
Lastly, shooting a real-time movie really grounds it within its location of Paris. While it may have taken time for Varda to grow to appreciate the city, her observant and mindful habits have always served her well at finding interesting people and places, as shown in today’s other short films; L’opéra-mouffe (1958), Les dites cariatides (1984) and T’as de beaux escaliers, tu sais (1986). Varda leverages her budget restraints of having to shoot in real locations by finding interesting images you wouldn’t find in more conventional movies, like having driving scenes that don’t use projected backgrounds. In L’opera-mouffe especially, she contrasts the street vendors carts of food with images of homeless men who can’t afford it, or of her naked pregnant body against a pumpkin that gets hacked open to harvest the seeds inside.
In contrast to La Pointe Courte with its two very different halves smashed together to demand a response, Cléo from 5 to 7 blends its ideas together much more subtly and effectively. In fact, there are enough small nuances that they might slip past a casual viewing or two, in my case. But with sufficient preparation, I think I get it now.
Next time: Rue Daguerre