Monday Movie: Cleo from 5 to 7, by David Bax
Unfolding in realish time (the movie is actually half an hour shorter than the timeframe described by the title), Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is a deceptively slight movie that towers in cinema history due to its of-the-moment political concerns (the ongoing war in Algeria edges its way into more than one subplot), its placement early in the French New Wave era (Varda’s only previous narrative feature, La Pointe Courte, was made prior to the commonly agreed upon genesis of the New Wave and is viewed as one of the works that anticipated the movement) and, of course, its individual grace, beauty and emotional power.
Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a pop singer awaiting the results of medical tests that she is sure will prove she has cancer. She drinks coffee, buys a hat, meets briefly with her songwriting team, goes for a walk and does other mostly mundane things as she ponders what may be a very short life. Varda is such an openhearted humanist that her love for Cléo and for most of the characters she encounters could be seen to overshadow the film’s politics. In truth, it bolsters them. Cléo is, at first glance, a shallow person; the kind we expect flash-in-the-pan celebrities, especially female ones, to be. But Varda and Marchand know, and remind us, that constant self-regard is not just vanity. For many, if not most, women, it is a crucial part of daily survival. Cléo’s tendency to look in mirrors and obsess over her own beauty becomes instantly reframed by the mortal threat she faces, which throws into question what it even means for a woman in her position to be alive. In the eyes of those who surround her, does she exist if she’s not beautiful? Existentialism has a way of taking the air out of any condescension Cléo encounters, either from the men in her life or from the viewer.
Through and around it all swirls and glides Varda’s camera. Trained as a photographer and possessing an inherent, unquenchable curiosity about people, which would go on to define her entire, singular career, she not only pores over Marchand’s flawless and furrowed face, she swings around to take in anything and everything that briefly captures her attention. What’s going on outside the streetcar window? Hey, look at that kitten! In this way and others, Cléo from 5 to 7 is, like the best of the French New Wave films, still thrillingly alive and unpredictable all these decades later.