Cleo from 5 to 7
Cleo from 5 to 7 is a film written and directed by Agnes Varda, a french woman filmmaker who was influential to the French new wave. Cleo was Varda’s 2nd feature film and it came out in 1961. I first watched this film in the fall of 2017 during my freshman year of college, and then again just a few semesters ago when I took a French cinema course. Since my first viewing of Cleo, I have found myself often going back to it. The film is simple and the plot is not too advanced; however, it has an effortless charm to it that I find to be quite attractive.
The film follows a famous singer named Cléo, who is played by actress Corinne Marchand. We follow her through her day between the hours of 5 and 7 as she waits for the results of her biopsy, which will reveal whether or not she has cancer. We meet her during an ominous tarot card reading, which is where the story begins. Over the course of the film Cleo visits a few of her friends, all of whom fail to give her the emotional support she needs. Wandering around Paris, she finally finds comfort while talking with a soldier in the park. On leave from the Algerian War, his troubles put hers into perspective. As they talk and walk, Cléo comes to terms with her selfishness, finding peace before the results come back.
While taking French cinema (with Professor Natoli, I highly recommend it if anyone enjoys French/foreign films) I discovered my interest and love for the French new wave. This film has a lot of characteristics of the movement which is what I find has sparked my fascination with it. These characteristics, most notably in regards to Cleo, are jump cuts, long takes and the use of a handheld camera. In order to explain more thoroughly I am going to point out a specific scene in the film where each of these characteristics can be seen. I will start with the first scene, where Cleo is receiving a tarot card reading. In this scene Varda uses jump cuts in order to show the confusion and disarray that Cleo is feeling in that moment that carries her throughout the entirety of the film. As the tarot card reader flips each card, there are jump cuts that jump back and forth. I think that these cuts are a perfect fit for the scene and a great way to start the film. From this first scene, the viewer is able to feel the same tension that is going on in Cleo’s head. It is also important to note that this is the only part of the entire film in which Varda uses color. I think this amplifies these feelings that Cleo has. The switch from the first scene in color to the rest of the film which is in black and white, shows the muddled and confused state that Cleo is in. She is horrified by the possibility that her biopsy will come back with bad news. This fear rules over the entire film.
Around the forty-eight minute mark, there is a scene in which Cleo is walking down the street. In this scene, Varda uses a handheld camera. This gives the scene and overall shaky look. This shakiness gives off a sense of reality. Personally, whenever I see a shot where the filmmaker uses a handheld camera, I feel closer to the film. It feels less like I am watching a film and more like I am the one with the camera in my hands. In this scene Cleo is in a clear state of panic. She is seemingly quite unwell. By using a handheld camera that shakes as the cameraman moves, these panicked feelings are heightened and the viewer is given a closer look into Cleo’s feelings. As the film progresses the viewer is able to keep unveiling Cleo’s current state of mind at any given moment, and I think that is brilliant. The long takes in the film add to this because it slows the pace of the film. For example, there is a scene around fifty-five minutes in where Cleo is in a car with a friend of hers. They talk as the car drives around Paris (the film was shot on location, which is another characteristic of the French new wave). As the conversation progresses, the shot never cuts. This again creates the effect that the viewer is acting as a third party in the film. We are able to sit and watch this conversation as if we are in the car with them. This allows the audience to see Cleo in a real way. As the viewer, you are spending two hours on this journey with Cleo and we can see a lot in how she acts around others. It is clear to us that she is afraid, but also that she is trying to avoid the situation all together. She is going on with her day, but the impending news weighs on her every step of the way. These film techniques allow us to simply dive deeper into the mind and life of the character.
There are also a few recurring images throughout the film. The two that I will talk about are mirrors/reflections and clocks. There are numerous shots in the film where Cleo stands in front of a mirror or in front of some form of glass that reflects her image back to us. The use of reflections in the film are there to show us that Cleo is in fact reflecting on her own life. She fears that she will soon die; therefore, as this feeling of doom and the possibility of her untimely death looms over her, she (and we) are constantly looking at her reflection as if to say that she feels the need to reflect. She is looking back at herself and in turn her entire life, her entire state of being. The use of mirrors also allows the audience to see what is going on around Cleo. It gives us a sense of her surroundings at all times. The clocks that appear throughout the film kind of work in opposition to the mirrors. While she looks at her reflection and back on her life, the clock is a constant reminder that time is running out. As the clock ticks and the hour hand moves closer to 7:00, Cleo is pushed closer to hearing the news that she so deeply dreads. The clock also reminds us that she is inching closer to death, whether she is sick or not, she will someday have to face death. It is inevitable. I love the use of clocks in the film because it again pulls the audience into the film. We truly feel like we are following her in real time.
Cleo from 5 to 7 is a fantastic film that I recommend to anyone who may not have seen it. It is also important to point out that Agnes Varda is one of the only women directors who are credited as being a part of the French new wave. I personally love her work and think she was incredible in her craft.