The Humanists: Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)


by Colin Marshall

As an aesthetic-historical artifact, a primary source documenting the lost, oft-fetishized swinging jauntiness of early-1960s Western Europe, Cléo from 5 to 7 works. As a story that keys into the low-level dread and inklings of personal fraudulence that rise within us all from time to time — not too often, if we're lucky — it's more effective still. Agnès Varda pulls off an impressive balancing act by stacking a tale of fragile superficiality momentarily shaken by mortality's quake atop what's essentially a documentary of idealized Paris. (But if it's documentary footage, it by definition captures the real Paris rather than an ideal one; critics have surely tied elaborate mental knots about this before.) It's fiction in the foreground with fact in the background. The fiction, though, gets at something very real as well, albeit differently real, with a treatment that stands well apart from other films' before and since.

Cléopatre Victoire's bit of bad news hits her almost immediately, delivered via a tarot deck in this black-and-white picture's sole color sequence. Despite the fortuneteller's boilerplate buffer of hand-waving about change and transformation, Cléo knows full well what that card with the hunched, scythe-wielding skeleton predicts for her. Alas, for two whole days she's been trapped in a sickening limbo familiar to too many: Waiting For The Test Results. Though medical science will come through with the dirt on her possible cancer in a mere two hours, the prognostication confirms her worst fears: as many male (and envious female) heads are turned by her appearance and as many spins as her newly-cut pop single receives on the radio, she's a pretty blonde chanteuse whose days are numbered. The other cards reveal a heartening new acquaintance in her future, but the damage is done; impervious to reassurance, Cléo leaves despondent. (“She is doomed,” the prophet then tells a man, previously unseen, sitting in the next room.)

This would be more tragic if Cléo were at all sympathetic. “Ugliness is a kind of death,” she thinks to herself on the way out, checking out her own reflection in the foyer's mirror. “As long as I'm beautiful, I'm alive.” To label her as vain misses the point. It's not as if she has a tendency toward these moments of high aesthetic self-regard; most of her actions revolve around the examination and manipulation of her own surface. Even the tears shed at the close of her tarot appointment look timed and released to be maximially photogenic in the given context. Moments later, Cléo waltzes down the street, tractor-beaming the gazes of strangers, apparently her usual self. Hers is a broad, generic beauty, one that commands glances by the dozen but rarely provides a gateway to any substantive human contact. (Indeed, it may be an active repellent; she looks, by modern standards, imposingly, laboriously constructed, like her own wax museum figure.) It's no wonder she equates loss of beauty with loss of life — she's got nothing else.

It soon becomes clear that, even in the best of times, Cléo isn't capable of much, requiring assistance even when trying on hats — and it's a testament to the photographer-turned-filmmaker Varda's skill that she humanizes even that byword for cinematic creative bankruptcy, the trying-on-hats sequence — from her long-suffering, cutely dowdy chaperone Angèle. “She could be happy,” Angèle thinks to herself about her charge, “but she needs to be looked after. She's a child.” Which is not to say that the older woman has both feet solidly on the ground herself: she admonishes Cléo for intending to wear a winter hat in the summer and aggressively steers her away from anything involving what she believes to be unlucky numbers. As Varda films from any available vantage point — cars, alleys, balconies — the pair roam the sidewalks of Paris while the city goes about its business. And given the lack of room in the production's budget for hundreds of extras, it's Paris' genuine, unstaged business at that. (It's anybody's guess whether the cadre of costumed “art students” who rush Cléo and Angèle's taxi were hired or just there. 60s Paris, after all.)

Later, in Cléo's somehow both Spartan and Rococo apartment — and what to make of that indoor swing? — the singer's malaise erupts to the surface during a visit from her pianist and lyricist. But it's not a foreseeable breakdown, a confession that she just can't take the growing commercial pressures of her nascent-star status combined with the looming possibility of deadly illness. It's simply a theatrical tantrum about how (she believes) her collaborators foist excessively downbeat songs on her. She instructs the two men to leave the sheet music, that she'll decide what she wants to sing later, but the pianist points out to her that she can't read music. Angered further, she takes off, prompting Angèle to make one of the script's wisest observations: “What a performance.”

Cléo's dark day of the soul relocates to the thick of Parisian public life. She witnesses a man stuffing frog after live frog into his mouth. She's horrified by another street freak whose act involves running large needles through his arm. She visits a friends who passes her days as a nude model for sculpting students; explaining to the mystified Cléo how she could possibly disrobe in front of an entire class, the friend says that her body makes her not proud but happy. (The starkness of the contrast with Cléo approaches heavy-handedness.) The friend's hubby, a projectionist, plays them an old short where a young fellow, played by a surprisingly goofy Jean-Luc Godard, discovers that his “dark” glasses had been rendering every element of life more despair-worthy than it really is. (The same goes for the directness of this analogy.) She enters a café only to select her own song on irs jukebox. Is it more telling that nobody perks up and listens, or that Cléo evidently harbored expectations, destined to be crushed, that conversations would halt and heads would tilt, in quantity, toward the sound of her voice as it bubbled up through the all-day stream of background music?

Alone in a park, alternately walking and dancing through the scenery, Cléo happens upon Antoine, a soldier at the tail end of leave, contemplating his wasted three weeks in Paris and his imminent return to badly troubled Algeria, a region which was then just about as life-threatening as any malignant tumor. Clearly still able to savor life even in the face of his plight and seemingly unintimidated by Cléo's precision presentation — though at this point she's removed the complicated hairpiece that none can quite explain the place of in mid-century European high fashion — Antoine converses straightforwardly, humorously and without much subtextual guile. Cléo responds to this, though perhaps only with shock, caught off guard as she is in a setting away from Paris' millions of evaluating eyes. At some point, though it's not clear exactly when, our inveterate performer no longer looks to be performing, at least to the extent she had been; no small victory, that.

Varda has described this as the film that finally allowed her to reconcile her twin enthusiasms for the artifice of narrative cinema and for the immediacy of the documentary. While still a far cry from some sort of elaborate Werner Herzog-style fusion of fact and fiction, two layers — that of Cléo's journey and that of the Paris through which it wends — are clear and present. Contributing to the undercurrent of cinéma vérité is the fact that the action moves in real time: handy chapter titles appear every so often, keeping the viewer updated on which chunk of the story's clock is currently in view. But however its time passes, this is not a uniquely Parisian story, nor even a uniquely French one, so the integration between the layers isn't quite what it could have been with more geographically-grounded material. But regardless, the combined presence of the picture's two strata make it at least twice as fascinating than the average single-layered film.

In the war against cliché that is all creative effort, Varda walks a minefield here. How terribly easy would it have been to spin Cléo from 5 to 7 into the woeful melodrama of the ravishing, potential-filled siren martyred by fate, cut down in her prime by that skeleton's cold blade? To make it yet another morality play about a vain, shallow youngster's worldview jolted by force to focus instead on What Really Matters? To trot out once more the tired archetype of the terminal disease victim who, by a chance interpersonal connection, learns to savor life's every moment? To fall back on the worst technique of the worst, having Cléo's every problem solved by dint of meeting the right man? (And, to be sure, the movie has been accused, wrongly but understandably, of precisely this.) By closing off to the viewer these tidy narrative pathways, Varda's project survives this minefield and thus passes into exceptionality. Though the chilly, posturing Cléo does, over this hour and a half, defrost a bit and come to express herself in a less preprocessed manner, there is no scorching denouncement, no blinding revelation, no tearful recantation. The film is aware of life enough to know those things don't really happen — or at least not as they do in films.

And, yes, Cléo from 5 to 7 runs both in real time and for only an hour and a half, so there's another expectation exploded.