Gabrielle Ayala

Rockaway Collegiate High School, Senior

REVIEW | Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) directed by Agnès Varda

What would you do if you had to wait two hours to find out if you had cancer? How would you fill your time, and how would you come to terms with the fact that if you died the world would simply go on without you? These are the concepts that director Agnès Varda toys with in her French drama Cleo from 5 to 7. Cleo, a young rising pop singer, waits for her doctor to call with her medical results. She occupies her time by shopping, walking around and engaging with different people who help her not only cope with her fear but accept the beauty in her life which she so easily takes for granted.

Agnès Varda was a risk-taker both in her career and in this film. Her unconventional camera work, engaging edits, and simplistic writing style provides the viewer with a blatant realism as we see Paris through Cleo’s eyes. Varda’s experimental style was influential to feminists in the European film industry and to the French New Wave movement of the 1960’s, of which she was the only female member. Like other New Wave directors, her experimental style was influenced by the auteur theory, which places the director as the main creative visionary behind a film. Varda and other auteurs rebelled against the constricting structures of traditional cinema of that time, and Cleo from 5 to 7 was countercultural in that the protagonist was female.

Cleo 5 to 7, Corinne Marchard

Varda is often thought of as a feminist in a time when women had little to no voice in the film industry. In the film, Varda portrays Cleo as a strong and complex character. Instead of making her dependent on a man, Varda reverses this formula and instead has her literally sought after by every man who passes her on the street. Ironically, Cleo’s boyfriend seems to be the only man who does not pay Cleo any real attention. As a result, she looks for attention elsewhere, like with her maid or with her songwriter or even in her fame. This is a part of Cleo’s character. Though Cleo is lonely, it’s not because she doesn’t have people around to keep her company, but because every relationship, all her accomplishments, and the sum of her life is in doubt now that the possibility of her death is looming.

It’s fascinating to watch Cleo progress through the real time span of two hours in this first-person narrative. Through her eyes we see the streets of Paris, the cafes and taxis, the bustle of everyday life. Cleo starts off worried about the possibility of cancer because she values her life and she externally has everything: wealth, talent, looks, and health. But we find she lacks true happiness. She gains this over the span of the film and even maintains it in the moment her diagnosis is confirmed. This aspect of self-discovery and transformation added depth to Cleo’s character.

Another important aspect of Cleo’s character was musical. The music of the film was not only beautifully composed and strategically placed, it was also very intentional in the creative vision of Agnès Varda. In the scene when Cleo is introduced to the new song “Sans Toi,” she starts off hesitant with the melody and words, singing very slow and reading straight from the paper. But halfway through the song, as the camera rotates in front of her and the background surrounding her turns black, she engages directly with the viewers—no longer looking at the paper, almost as if she’s familiar with the words of the song. She sings intensely like this for a while and as the music picks up, so does her intensity. She starts to cry and her tears, thanks to the direct lighting, can be seen beautifully pooling in her eyes and dripping off her cheeks. The scene ends with the song and the camera zooming out extremely fast to reveal she’s still in her house. She seems exhausted and suddenly physically sick at the song. This is so devastating for Cleo, because she once found joy and peace in her music. Now it’s no longer enough for her. It’s not an escape; it’s a reminder of all she has to lose. This scene was my favorite part of the whole movie, because it’s a perfect example of Varda’s use of mise-en-scene. Her intentions with the sound, the lighting, the acting and the amazing camera shots were simple yet beautiful and could have had many interpretations.

As a film enthusiast and media technician, my favorite technique used by Agnès Varda in this film was the camerawork. In the opening scene, when Cleo gets upset about the conclusions made from the tarot cards, she leaves and walks down these winding stairs. The camera angles switch from still shots of Cleo walking down the stairs to a handheld camera which gives us a sense of Cleo’s inner feelings—disoriented, confused, and scared. Varda employs this camera technique three consecutive times to make confusing intertwined reflections which emphasize how Cleo is feeling about the possibility of cancer. In addition, Varda’s mirror shots foreshadow the symbolisms of mirrors used later that not only hint at Cleo’s obsession with beauty and her external appearance but also hint at the more subtle internal discoveries Cleo finds about herself later.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is probably my favorite realist film because of the different creative aspects and influences of Agnès Varda. I loved the use of complex characters living simple lives; I liked the lighting and the slight uses of color in the opening scene; I like the use of sound and the music to add moods to different scenes and connect the emotions of the character to the viewers. The camera angles which were risky and would have normally been very distracting worked seamlessly in this film. Overall I appreciated the efforts and artistic value of the film and work of Varda. This movie had a great impact on me. I had never seen a movie like this. If someone had described the film to me I would have said it wouldn’t work. It would be too risky; it would be boring and not a strong-enough story. But I would have been wrong. This is why Varda is so admired and respected. She does the unthinkable and leaves you wondering how she got away with it.