Great Films by Women – Cléo de 5 à 7

This is the second article in a series about some amazing films by female directors. The first is here; the inspiration for the series is described here. (You can also check the sidebar for links to earlier sporadic posts about female filmmakers, which are separate from this current project.)

French filmmaker Agnès Varda wrote and directed Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) in 1962. Now 82 years old, she is still making films, the most recent of which is 2008’s Les Plages de Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes), a sort of memoir in documentary form. Her early work is often described as being part of the Rive Gauche film movement, which was associated with the French New Wave, but encompasses some of the less famous and commercially successful filmmakers than, say, Charbol, Truffaut, and Godard. Rive Gauche filmmakers often embraced leftist political views and experimental filmmaking styles.

Cléo de 5 à 7 follows a couple of hours in the life of a beautiful and fairly successful young singer, as she awaits the results of a medical test that will tell her whether she has cancer. Cléo is not stoic about her situation. We open with a scene of her visiting a tarot card reader, to try to get a jump on knowing her fate.

The overhead shots of the tarot reading table are the only color moments we get in the film. Those first flashes of black and white as the camera finally shifts to the faces of the women pull us out of the abstract world of the tarot and into real life: Cléo is not kidding around. She is very afraid that she might be dying.

From the tarot reader’s apartment, Cléo goes to meet her maid/personal assistant Angèle at a café, and proceeds to have a dramatic breakdown at the table. Angèle outwardly comforts Cléo, but her inner monologue betrays that she thinks Cléo is a silly paranoid girl. Angèle and strangers in the café tell Cléo that she shouldn’t worry, doctors are always making people think that they might be sick, and everything will be fine.

So, what else to do to kill time as she waits for the moment she can see her doctor? Cléo goes shopping, an exercise in buying a hat transforming into a sort of confirmation of her own importance in the world, as she tries on nearly every hat in the store to prove that they all look good on her, then buys the first one she’d seen. She briefly sees a man she’s involved with. She visits a friend who is working as a nude model for an art class. She performs a veritable tour of Paris in an hour and a half, alternately trying to distract herself from the issue at hand and deeply contemplating what she will do should the results come back positive. Everywhere we go, Cléo seems to see herself reflected in a mirror or a window. She admires her own beauty, thinking that at least if she dies she will never have to become ugly. She cannot escape herself.

Throughout this, the camera both takes in Cléo—drifting above her as she walks through the streets, peering in at her through a shop window—and takes in the city as Cléo does, with long shots from taxi windows, sweeping gazes of parks, and lingering moments on strangers’ faces. We are with Cléo for the whole film, yet sometimes she is kept out of frame for long, quiet moments. She may be the focus of the events we’re watching, but if she were not there, the city would go on.

At one point in the middle of the film, Cléo tries to go through rehearsal as normal. Her accompanist and songwriter tease her by dressing up as a doctor and chemist and singing a made-up song about giving her medicine. She laughs it off a bit, but a few moments later, as she sings a song about a lost love (“I am an empty house/without you, without you”), she lets her despair and worry loose in a much more real way than at the café or the hat shop. She also reminds the viewer, who at this point has heard her concerns dismissed by others several times, that she is not just a silly girl, but a grown, talented woman with valid emotions:

As the time finally nears for Cléo to meet her doctor, she takes a walk in a park and meets a solider who is about to ship out to Algeria. With his own plight, and with no preconceived notion of Cléo and what she should be like, the two connect with a brief conversation. He is there with her when the doctor finally gives her the results. I will not say here what they are, but I will say that watching the film a second time, knowing how Cléo reacts to finally hearing for sure whether she’s sick or not, only added to its brilliance for me.

Cléo de 5 à 7 is deeply intelligent, beautiful to look at and anchored by a wonderful performance from Corinne Marchand as Cléo. It is easily one of my favorite films of the French New Wave/Rive Gauche movements, and should be as well-known as films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Godard’s Breathless. It is currently streaming on Netflix.


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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