Lost in the Movies: The Sunday Matinee: Cleo From 5 to 7

The Sunday Matinee: Cleo From 5 to 7

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

Cleo From 5 to 7, France, 1962, dir. Agnes Varda, starring Corinne Marchand

Story: After a bad visit to a psychic, pop star Cleo Victoire (real name Florence) fears that her recent medical tests will offer a sentence of death. As she wanders the streets of Paris, flitting from rehearsals to sickbeds to restaurants to strolls through the park, the artifice of her persona and appearance is slowly stripped away, until only Florence is left to find out what fate has in store.

The visual touchstone of French New Wave cinema is a character wandering down the real-life streets of Paris, trailed by a handheld camera or preceded by a makeshift dolly: think Jean Seberg shouting "New York Herald-Tribune!", Jean-Pierre Leaud playing truant, Bernadette Lafont pretending to ignore flirtatious overtures from a passing car, or Betty Schneider ducking into a cafe to discuss a mysterious disappearance with Jean-Luc Godard. This visual tradition traveled through time when Jules and Jim brought the New Wave spirit to prewar bohemia, parading down the period avenues and alleys. Truffaut's big hit seemed to capture the restless motion of a whole generation at the dawn of a new, exciting era in art and life alike (although in its ending it contained foreshadowings of the frustrations, disappointments, and uncertainties to come).

Then "the walk" crossed the Channel in 1963 with Julie Christie's daffy, free-spirited stroll through a Yorkshire town in Billy Liar, and it crossed the Atlantic when Liar's director John Schlesinger set Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman loose in a downbeat, grimy New York - by then, the sixties had taken a darker turn. (In 1974, Louis Malle would turn the French "city-walking film" on its head: rather than follow one character with a moving camera, he fixed the camera in place, allowing it to glimpse into the lives of all the passerby who crossed its path.) But no film more perfectly captures or fully explores the potential of this method than Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnes Varda's second feature and her first fictional film since 1955's Le Pointe-Courte, a documentary-narrative hybrid, which preceded the New Wave.

Varda's roots (and future) in documentary are well on display here. All the New Wave directors are fond of asides, but few go so far as Varda in not just observing their hero's surroundings, but capturing a sense of reality unfolding in multiple directions on- and just off-screen. Nearly forty years before The Gleaners & I, Varda is already gathering up everything she can: a pedestrian's mumbled anecdote here, the aftermath of an accident observed there, the hustle and bustle of city life - hectic noise and blurred visuals - everywhere. There's even time for a comical short film in a cinema, starring Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Claude Brialy, and Anna Karina (and Varda herself in a cameo as a street vendor) - though its pleasant artifice and static camera only serve to highlight the naturalism and sinuous grace of the film proper.

There's another element which stands out from the naturalistic flow of images: Cleo herself, a pop singer faced with her own mortality and wrestling with the question of her own identity, perhaps for the first time in years. When we first meet her, she's immaculately dressed and made-up, her porcelain skin almost frustrating in its doll-like perfection, her hair elegantly coiffed so that even the tears running down her cheeks (at the sight of a Death-headed Tarot card) seem artificial. We wonder if there's really a "there" there, and exposed to the inner monologues of her compatriots on the soundtrack (a bemused older female assistant/guardian calls her a "child"), we realize these doubts are not ours alone.

Indeed, Cleo quickly flits from melodramatic self-pity to smug self-congratulation, as fans cower before her own celebrity. She theatrically asks her cab driver to shut off the radio when one of her songs comes over the airwaves; complaining about the quality of the recording, in reality she only wants to highlight the fact that she's a star. Back at her gymnasium-sized home, she receives a phony visit from an older Romeo, and works on some material with a couple wisecracking songwriters, who seem both to revere her beauty and condescend towards her perceived stupidity. As she hangs from a monkey bar suspended from her ceiling, cloaked in a fur coat, we're inclined to see her as silly and spoiled, but while singing one of the duo's new tunes, Varda's lens closing in on Cleo's visage cloaked by a black background, the real emotions start to emerge.

It's a kind of breakthrough, after which Cleo shocks us by tearing off her hair - a wig. Beneath her locks are still blonde but the cut is shorter, more casual, all mussed up at the moment. It's the first revelation that we've been seeing only one part of Cleo - her public face - but instead of feeling more distanced from her (wondering what she's been withholding), we realize that for her too, this is a (self-)discovery. As she wanders Paris alone, meeting up with friends, passing out of their company, discovering a potential soulmate in a soldier shipping out to Algeria later that night, she is wandering "in disguise." But ironically that disguise is in fact her true self, the confused, sensitive, romantic Florence concealed beneath the layers of the rich, famous, phony Cleopatra Victoire.

The ending is ambivalent: Cleo discovers that she does in fact have cancer, but is casually informed that "two months of chemotherapy should take care of it" by her doctor (who, driving past his office in a car, seems to think she's already been informed of the diagnosis). The revelation is a bit of a shock, a further reminder of Cleo's fragility (and it adds an ominous undertow to her dispensing of the wig earlier in the film). True, it is also a relief: she isn't necessarily going to die, unless the physician is just putting a smiley face on a grim prognosis. Yet somehow, this news is more disturbing than a simple "you will be dead in a week."

Cleo's morbid fantasies of martyrdom at least have a tinge of romance and unreality to them: suggesting someone melodramatically but beautifully wasting away in a lavish bed like Bette Davis in Dark Victory. Two months of chemo, on the other hand, is grimly real and carries the prospect of pain. The day's pinpricks of reality will give way to all-out torrent of suffering, bodily and mentally exposed (Cleo is not even comfortable with the prospect of nudity, and we gather that this discomfort is metaphysical as well as physical). The process we have seen over the course of this evening (on the longest day of the year) is both a prologue and a microcosm of what she will go through as the treatment begins: the soul giving way (and hopefully emerging stronger) along with the body.

This time the "walk" is neither a lark nor an escape but a journey and a discovery - the external manifestation of an internal shift in consciousness. She may be Cleo at 5, but by 7 she's Florence, and ready, with however much trepidation and ambivalence, to face the future.

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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