Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) Written and directed by Agnés Varda.  Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray (90 min) In French with English subtitles

Cléo, a chanteuse, anxiously awaits the results of her biopsy.  Varda, the only woman director in the French New Wave, uses its breathless freedom to create the illusion of real time.  Cleo must overcome her vanity and surge towards the possibility of love, said Varda, “the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.”  …In the cinema of enchantment this ranks pretty high” (Time Out).

Agnes Varda, who is considered the pre-eminent female director of the French New Wave, did not come to filmmaking through the obsessive film viewing of her contemporaries like Francois Truffaut or Jean Luc Godard.  She was a photojournalist and documentarian whose early influences included art history, theater and fashion, as well as photography and journalism.  She layers her heroine’s lack of involvement against current events.  “Varda’s photojournalist instincts are apparent in the way she turns Paris into a hall of mirrors—windows and faces that reflect the heroine back to herself” (Haskell). Cleo’s narcissism, as she navigates through Paris, will dissolve and she will learn how to open herself to a world of possibilities.

Varda was born in Ixelles, Belgium in 1928.  Her legal name is Arlette, an homage to the city of her conception, Arles.  She grew up in the south of France and moved to Paris in 1946.  She studied art history with the intention of becoming a museum curator, but then switched to photography.  One of her early jobs was taking pictures of children with Father Christmas at the Galeries Lafayette department store.  She was also the staff photographer at the Theatre National Populaire.  She made three well-regarded commissioned short films, but didn’t think of herself as a filmmaker.  Then, she decided she wanted to make a longer, more personal, film.

Paris was a city of fear for her, as someone who had arrived from the provinces, and rather than being inspired by a cinematic Paris, she was inspired by a literary and art historical Paris. So, unlike other New Wave directors, rebelling against “le cinema du papa” she had nothing to rebel against.  She was making a statement of her own artistic aesthetic without reference to the history of cinema.

Varda said, “What did Paris evoke for me? A broad fear of the big city, of its dangers, and of losing oneself there alone, misunderstood and even jostled…These minor fears quickly became a fear of cancer that was in everyone’s imagination in the 1960s.  Without losing sight of the production budget, I thought about a minimal film set into continuous time and added to it a real trajectory that could be traced on a map of central Paris (that was the game…the bet on Paris)” (Unger 87).  She also meditated on how beauty cannot protect one from the harsh realities of life. She was deeply influenced by the paintings of Baldung Grien, like Death and the Maiden, showing beautiful young women being manhandled and threatened by skeletons, representing death and decay. The late medieval allegory of the Dance of Death, evoked by the Black Death and the Hundred Years War (and staged so memorably by Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal) is here represented by cancer and the war in Algeria.

She wanted a conventionally beautiful protagonist, in part because death and disease are more shocking when they affect someone young, and she thought an older heroine would be less sympathetic.  The title refers to the specific hours of the day when the film takes place, but is also a pun, a 5 á 7 is the time that a man visits his mistress before returning home to his wife, although this time, the beautiful young woman has an appointment not with her lover, but with death.

Cléo de 5 á 7 takes place on June 21, 1961, on the day that the astrological symbol of Gemini transitions to Cancer.  Cléo’s route through Paris “starts at a commercial district on the Right Bank before moving south across the Seine to the Left Bank neighborhoods of St-Germain des Prés, Montparnasse, the Parc Montsouris and ending at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière near the Jardin des Plantes, the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Seine.  This trajectory included no fewer than forty eight locations” (Unger 36). It is refreshingly unlike movies that create a false geography (wait, you can’t get from point A to point B!)

Her camera also tries to reproduce the feeling of real time (the film should be Cleo from 5 to 6:30) not aspiring to the use of a single camera to present a single point of view, as in Hitchcock’s Rope, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark or the recent Oscar winning Birdman, but camera movement and subjective perspectives root it firmly in the spontaneous vibrations of the Nouvelle Vague.  It also evokes the city symphonies of films like Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera.

Scenes were filmed, as much as possible, at the time they were occurring, so the light would be right (as would any random clocks included in a shot).  Varda made the film extremely personal.  Cléo’s jewellery, rocking chair and seven cats were Varda’s.

In a 1961 interview, Varda said, “I needed s somewhat frivolous character to highlight this sudden transition from coquettishness to anxiety.  The film is principally the story of the growing awareness of an internal evolution and that’s why chronology is so important.  I absolutely had to show the difference and contrasts between objective time and the subjective time experienced by the character…Cléo belongs to a category of people who ordinarily don’t really take in what’s really happening around them.  And suddenly she begins to look, to really see the people she passes in the street…the more she enters into the life of the people around her, the more she finds herself at a loss. She’s looking for an answer” (Kline 19-20).

Cléo has three costumes in the course of the 90 minute film, rather a lot for one person.  It’s worth noting that Varda equates white with death (the absence of color) not black.  Much of the writing about the film has centered on its feminism, since Cléo is not a particularly self-reflective character, and also whether she is a true flâneuse. This is a word to describe a person, usually a man (since solo walking around Paris by a woman was still a bit scandalous) meandering through the streets, observing and absorbing urban life in all its complexity.   Cléo’s walk through Paris may or may not qualify, because she is thinking of herself, and not her surroundings.  But, this may be strictly an academic’s concern.

The part was written for Corinne Marchand.  “I wrote the role of Cléo for her because I believe in creating roles for specific actors.  Without modifying the major lines of a film, you should nevertheless chose certain characteristic details, certain speech patterns in harmony with the personality of the actress who will play the part, gestures and words that belong to her in real life” (Kline 21). Michel Legrand, shoes music is so closely associated with the films of Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, was cast after she saw his personality, rehearsing with Marchand.

Cancer, in the 1950s and 60s was a disease that was thought to characterize an age, much as tuberculosis had in the 19th century.  It was not uncommon for doctors not even to tell patients what was wrong with them.  Cancer, a disease that developed in secret was sometimes perceived as a punishment. Madonna wanted to star in a remake in the 1980s, in which cancer would be replaced by AIDS.

It is easy to hail Varda as a pioneer of feminist cinema––a label she resists––but Cléo from 5 to 7 was, way before its time, already a complex “postfeminist” portrait of a woman. Cléo is, after all, no idealized archetype. As a central movie character, she is an unlikely, surprising choice. Cléo loves and suffers—and it is hard not to identify with her agonized wait for the medical word that will decide her future—but she’s also petulant, frivolous, vain, scatty” (Martin). In other words, a fully realized human being.

Cléo de 5 á 7 by Steven Ungar, a BFI Film Guide, Cléo de 5 á 7 by Valerie Orpen, Agnes Varda by Allison Smith, Agnes Varda Interviews Edited by T. Jefferson Kline, Cleo From 5 to 7 by Molly Haskell, Cleo From 5 to 7: Passionate Time by Adrian Martin