Being a celebrity, to live in that bubble, must be special. As the global economy was crashing due to the spread of the coronavirus in early 2020, several Hollywood stars decided this was the time to go viral with a clip where they were singing John Lennon’s ”Imagine”. I’m sure they thought this would be uplifting, even inspirational, in a time of crisis. What they faced instead was a massive social-media backlash. They seemed unable to read the room. I was reminded of this while watching Agnès Varda’s breakthrough film, a classic part of the French New Wave.
Visiting a tarot card reader
When we first meet Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), she’s visiting a tarot card reader who tells her that she’s going to meet a young man and that there is a doctor in her life. Then the fortune teller pulls a death card; trying to soothe Cléo, it’s nevertheless clear the fortune teller believes cancer will kill her client. She’s not the only one who believes that. Cléo has had tests done and is now waiting for the results. Convinced she has cancer, the famous singer is holding onto the one thing that gives her solace: her own beauty.
After the card reading, Cléo meets her devoted maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray), whose job it is to keep the artist grounded. They go shopping for hats, the beginning of a long wait for those test results later that night…
Capturing a slice of life in 1962
The film is about many things, as Varda jumps into French society and does her best trying to capture a slice of life in 1962. The portrait of Cléo is done with a sense of humor; this is not a person who knows herself very well, or what life is like outside her celebrity bubble. Her home looks absurd and she’s always followed around by a woman who’s looking at her like she’s lost her mind. At the same time, the movie is a comment on how women are regarded in French society, at least the way Varda sees it; if you lose your beauty, you have no value. You may automatically think that’s a falsehood, but it’s easy to believe it and play along in order to please men, those in power.
Cléo from 5 to 7 has survived as an important feminist film, but it’s also a fine example of existentialism in cinema. The movie is episodic, divided into chapters, taking Cléo and the audience through a series of encounters and experiences in Paris. The feeling is very much here and now, as we watch people going about their business, the early 1960s represented in every way, even through radio broadcasts of the news, reporting on the Algerian war (which, incidentally, becomes an important theme near the end when Cléo meets a young soldier who’s disenchanted about that conflict). Our glamorous lead character ponders her value and role, and we in the audience are constantly amused and intrigued. Marchand is very good and it’s fun watching composer Michel Legrand as Bob the pianist, and in a silly silent-film clip cinema icons like Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine.
Cléo from 5 to 7 becomes unexpectedly romantic near the end as Cléo takes a walk together with the talkative soldier (Antoine Boursellier). She seems finally at peace. The soldier has touched something within her, and she’s about to get some good news. Everything will be alright, in spite of a troubled world. That’s true now as well.
Cléo from 5 to 7 1962-France. 90 min. C-B/W. Produced by Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti. Written and directed by Agnès Varda. Music: Michel Legrand. Cast: Corinne Marchand (Cléo Victoire), Antoine Bourseiller (Antoine), Dorothée Blanck (Dorothée), Dominique Davray, Michel Legrand, José Luis de Vilallonga. Cameos: Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine.
Trivia: Original title: Cléo de 5 à 7.
Last word: “What I notice or discover has to grow in my mind. I always wait until the ideas and impulses are so strong that they invade my mind and I have to pursue them. My mind is often half-sleeping, like in a daydream. Then some images come together, some ideas, and then suddenly I have to do it. Like with ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ –at the time, there was this collective fear of cancer. People spoke about cancer a lot. The subject of a woman expecting the results of a cancer test felt interesting, and so I decided to do it in real time, with real geography.” (Varda, Interview Magazine)