By Afra Nariman
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Directed by: Agnés Varda
Stars: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blank
A superstitious pop singer named Cleo (played by Corinne Marchand), who is overwhelmed by her fear of death, spends the hours of 5pm to 7pm waiting on the results of a medical test. She passes the time worrying about her results, as she converses with friends, wanders the streets of Paris, and eventually meets a a soldier on leave, at the park, named Antoine (played by Antoine Bourseiller), who eventually comforts her. He gives her a new perspective in viewing her problems by telling her about his experiences of fear in the Algerian War. As they talk, Cleo comes to terms with her self-obsessed ways and finds peace with her life before being told the results of her medical test.
This is one of those films that show us what movies can really be; Cleo from 5 to 7 is cinema at its most personal and humanly relatable. It is seductive and hypnotic from the very first scene, where we begin with an in-color shot of a table with cards on it. This is the only non-black and white scene of the film. Cleo, after having seen a doctor who has told her that she may have cancer, is now at 5pm, visiting a Tarot card reader, hoping to get some insight into her potential illness, its severity and her future. She is already extremely fearful of her fate, and superstitious as she is, she has decided to visit the reader in hopes that she would ease her worries as she impatiently awaits her medical test results later that evening. As it happens, the reader’s “findings” only add to her worry and fear. This entire sequence only takes up about the first 5 minutes of the film, but it grasps our interest as effectively as any opening scene could — and the rest of the film doesn’t let up. You become absorbed in Cleo’s day and her feelings of fear and anxiety.
Although her day is rather simple, by making both Cleo and the audience utterly aware of the potential existential threat to her life, everything about the film, even the minor activities that Cleo spends her day doing, take on a certain gravity that makes the film powerful, emotional and important. For example, as she wanders the city, she becomes very aware of the people around her and overhears their conversations. Having succumbed to a fear of death, everything around her has a certain weight to it. Everything is happening slowly — and she’s aware of it all.
The film displays the importance of courage in the face of your fears. It portrays Cleo’s gradual arrival to the lesson of mind over matter. The entire film, she is self-obsessed. Her peers call her names like “childish” and “spoiled brat.” She completely gets sucked into a world of despair as she thinks her life is over. This is until towards the end of the film, when she meets Antoine, who shares with Cleo his experiences of fear and despair while in the Algerian War. He ultimately puts her potential fear into perspective.
The message that perspective is everything is a constant theme of the film, only to be fully realized in her conversation with Antoine. Most notably, this message is clear when Cleo is wandering around with her friend Dorothée, who’s husband shows them a short film, in which the main character learns a valuable lesson (comedically), that perspective is everything. The artistic devices used in the film to help subtly communicate messages is superb.
The film has Paris’ romantic ambiance radiating through its entirety, even if it has a cloud of despair hanging over it for a majority of the movie. In the last part of the film, after meeting Antoine, the film takes on a lively and romantic tone and mood that ushers us towards an emotionally satisfying end, where Cleo admits to Antoine that he has helped her move past her fear and that she thinks she is now happy for the first time in a while. Through Antoine, she is reminded of life’s beauty and is given a new, more courageous perspective in her approach to facing her fears. In the last 20-25 minutes of the film, where the two of them get acquainted and share some of the most genuine moments I’ve seen in any film, there is a lively portrayal of life that begins to make itself known. One of the more insightful moments from their conversations, aside from Antoine’s perspective-altering remarks about the fear he feels at war, comes when they are on the bus together. They begin to speak about Cleo’s friend, Dorothée’s job of posing nude for artists and sculptors. Antoine responds to Cleo’s remarks about nudity by saying;
Some lines are best left alone, not explained and analyzed too thoroughly. This is one of those lines, so I will refrain from seeping too deep into its message; but what Antoine is trying to express is the purity of life, untouched by human interference: nature. Love, birth, the dawn, the sun, the beach; these are all examples of pure nature, or naked nature. In relation to the topic of nudity, he is insinuating that nudity is not immodest or something to view as shameful, because it is humanity in its most natural form.
The filmmaking elements that Varda implements in Cleo from 5 to 7 are done so masterfully. As a pop singer, music is a big part of Cleo’s life, and consequently, the film. Not only does the film feature a remarkable soundtrack in the background, but the music serves the story’s development. Most of the time, through the music’s placement in the background; but one of the most absorbing and incredible scenes of the film is early in the film, when her colleagues come over to rehearse new songs with her. As the camera focuses solely on her, and a pianist elegantly provides the music, Cleo emotionally sings a song reminiscent of despair. The song, Sans toi, perfectly fits the moment and offers us a deeper avenue into the film’s emotionally seductive mood. It goes:
“With all doors open wide, with the wind rushing through, I’m like an empty house,
Without you, without you..
Like a deserted isle, invaded by the sea, my sands slip away,
Without you, without you..Beauty wasted, cold and naked, how can my body dream,
Without you, without you..
Gnawed away by despair, my body decays on a crystal bier,
Without you, without you..
If you wait too long, I’ll have been laid to rest. Ashen, pale and alone,
Without you, without you, without you…”– Cleo
Cleo, already emotional due to her fear of death and her recent, unhelpful interaction with the reader, immediately feels the element of despair in the song — as do we. This scene is one of the most hypnotic scenes of the film, and of any film for that matter.
From a production standpoint, Agnés Varda couldn’t have done better. Aside from the perfectly accompanying music that I previously mentioned, the film’s cinematography is free, artistic and has a certain style to it that makes the beautiful shots that much more immersive. Her background as a photographer is on full display, as each and every frame of the film is delicately magnificent and pleasing to watch. Cleo from 5 to 7 is an artistically vibrant film, which is illustrated through numerous aesthetic devices that give this simple, at times somber story, a lively aura.
This film explores the natural, human fear of death — of running out of time — and leaves us, as it leaves Cleo, with a fresh and optimistic perspective on life and the place that fear has in it. Near the end, Cleo even says;
This sentiment of having plenty of time, is an important distinction from how Cleo had felt for most of the film.
We often times succumb to fear, because like most living things, our natural instinct is survival; but in succumbing to our fears, we become self-obsessed, unaware of our surroundings, the people around us, their fears and their circumstances, many of which may be worse than ours. If something is wrong, it’s okay to worry, it’s okay to be scared — uncertainty can cause fear, but do not submit to that fear; rise above it. This masterpiece by Agnés Varda reminds us of life’s precious elements: love, nature, human connection, etc.
Cleo from 5 to 7 is a story about a woman who digs herself out of a hole of despair. It is a film about fearing death, yet it has a lively and romantic Parisian ambiance surrounding even its most melancholic moments. It’s on the short side, only running about 90 minutes; but it has you absorbed for every single second, making the film pass by quickly, yet it is still extremely impressive in how it affects you as a human being. It’s an artistically sound, poetically fluid, and simplistic, yet insightfully deep film about human fears and our ability to overcome them.