Criterion Cuts: “Cléo from 5 to 7”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie is probably one of the harder ones I’ve had to write about for this series, just in terms of how it brings across its themes and the mesh of formal structure and narrative. I think we might spend the next few weeks watching some more plot-driven movies, after this, instead. Samurais. Guns. Whatever. With me playing catch-up with the Oscar season stuff (despite hating awards, it’s a very unhealthy relationship) even I’m a bit arted out of late.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

A woman goes to a fortune teller, who doles out a nebulous, dangerous fortune one Tarot card at a time. The fortune teller warns her that things might be wrong. The woman apparently already knows this, knows that she’s sick, that she probably has cancer. The woman only wants some sort of comfort, an assurance that she’ll be okay. The fortune teller isn’t really selling that, and shows the near-frantic woman the door. This woman, Cléo (Corinne Marchand), finds herself out on the streets of Paris on late afternoon. It’s five, and she has time to kill until she is to get her final test results back from her doctor at seven. Until then, doubt and fear.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is a film from French director Agnès Varda, a photographer turned director. It tries to capture a limited moment in time, like Before Sunset or Rope. Unlike Rope, however, it doesn’t bother to attempt a single-shot gimmick. Cléo is firmly French New Wave, and looks it from the editing, sharply cut with an eye for underlining the truths of its small, personal story. But unlike most of the other New Wave films, it is the humanity that sets it apart.

The story follows Cléo for its entirety. At first, she exits the fortune teller only to rush to her friend and assistant, a woman so practical and bourgeois that she instantly dismisses Cléo’s worries and takes her shopping. A new hat, so long as it’s a stylish one, will be just the thing to cheer her up. They end up in a cafe, where Cléo breaks down in tears, only to have an array of men rush over to try to cheer her up. It works, for a time, though its obvious the storm has just been delayed and not dissipated entirely.

Cléo is a fairly well known singer, enough that some people recognize her but not enough that she’s a celebrity by our understanding of the term these days. As such, the world she’s presented with is relentlessly selfish and dismissive of her doubts. Who could blame them? If this story were made today, and was about a pop star who was undergoing an existential crisis, wouldn’t our first instinct be to ridicule? How upset can you be with life when you seemingly have it so easy? Even her colleagues, when they all show up at her apartment to run through some new songs, berate her for being melancholy. She tries to explain that she’s ill, but nobody believes her. They want her to try some new songs, instead. She calls them too simple, wishing for something meatier. When they give her something nuanced, it is sad and tragic and she takes to it with the sudden intensity of a true artist, but demands they don’t do it as it’s simply too much for her to bear.

The opening alternates between beautiful color and black and white. Cléo's shots, and her view of the world, never contain this vibrancy.

It’s sympathetic, but not unrealistically so. Cléo is presented with an eye for truth, and thus she’s at turns introspective and sympathetic, at other times frivolous and petty. Not that those things make her unsympathetic, mind. In fact, it’s that nuance that makes her so easy to understand. Even in, or perhaps especially in, such a compressed time frame, even a person suffering mortal terror and depression wouldn’t languish in a state of perpetual angst when surrounded by so much and so many varied life and people. When left alone, you can see it creeping in and her efforts to keep busy to escape it. With friends, she puts on a brave face and tries to act the part she is expected to. With strangers, though, it’s the brutal honesty of anonymity. It’s here that she finds her voice, late in the film coming across a soldier in the park and finding the sudden deep vulnerability allowed someone you may never see again.

Cleo's vast Paris apartment is quite literally the stage where the middle of the film plays out.

I’d hesitate to call Cléo from 5 to 7 a feminist work, per se, in the sense that it advocates some kind of perceived agenda. But if you’re willing to extend the definition to a movie that realistically portrays women as people and allows an actress to carry the movie in an even-handed way, then absolutely it is. It’s really amazing to see a movie come out of the French New Wave, which has great female roles but certainly a lack of realistic ones, that contains such verisimilitude. Perhaps it’s having a female director, but it’s a breath of fresh air in a period dominated by male obsessions and aspirations.

In all other ways, however, it remains a part of its time. As I mentioned, it’s sharply edited despite it’s ‘real time’ flow, using the editing to suggest the relativity of Cléo’s perception of the world around her and our perception of her. She goes behind a screen to change, and in a static cut emerges a split second later in a new outfit. She descends the stairs with a one-second shot of her going down a single step looped repeatedly, almost jokey in its shorthand and also in firm, obvious homage to Nude Descending a Staircase. Yet when the shots call for it, there are long stretches with no editing at all, just Cléo filling the screen with the quiet acting of posture and expression and eyes.

It is also firmly a narrow-scope travelogue of Paris, cutting a geographically recognizable path as Cléo wanders from cafe to apartment to park. The city is as much a character as Cléo, with her attention and that of the film’s drifting at times to the conversations and people around her. They are just snippets of speech, of stories being told or of lives being lived, but it focuses on them in the split second they are there as if they were characters nearly as important. It is the most earnest representation of people-watching on film I’ve ever experienced, and it puts you right in the sights and sounds of this world along with our heroine, a vast tapestry of life that just helps make her feel more small and more alone.

Cléo from 5 to 7 probably isn’t going be anyone’s favorite film, with it’s small frame and modest ambition. It’s a film driven not by plot (though it has the obvious end goal that puts a death-clock over the progression of the film) or by a vast array of characters, but by the head space inhabited by Cléo herself. It’s not a happy place, conflicted and confused and torn emotionally between extremes of wild passion for life and a desperate, devouring lack of hope. But it’s a real space, a space many people (maybe even all people) will at some point find themselves in during their lives, and it looks so unflinchingly away from the reality of that tone that it becomes something of a marvel simply due to its existence. Cléo might feel alone, but we don’t have to. Here is us, in one of our darkest times, shown to us on the big screen. Someone understands and cares, and nobody is alone.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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