In “Cleo from 5 to 7,” the filmmaker Agnès Varda embraces the turbulent distractions of public life, even as she filters them through her protagonist’s mortal terror.
With her first feature, “La Pointe Courte,” Agnès Varda was far ahead of the French New Wave; with her second, “Cleo from 5 to 7,” which she made in 1961, she joined up with the movement and expanded it in ways that reflected her own artistic inclinations. The New Wave was a quest for personal filmmaking but it was also a cinema of observation, a heightened realism that embodied inner experience. In “Cleo,” the story of a woman who is killing time in the face of death, Varda, who died on March 29th, at the age of ninety, rendered the act of observation tensely dramatic. The title is literal: Varda follows Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a rising Parisian pop singer, for two hours before she sees a doctor who’ll deliver the results of her tests for cancer. (The story is only slightly condensed, into a ninety-minute movie.)
The action is imbued with augury: the movie opens with a richly colorful sequence, of a tabletop filled with tarot cards that a fortune-teller is reading for Cleo, leaving her in despair. Cleo meets her friend and assistant, Angèle (Dominique Davray), at a café and collapses in tears. She returns to her Left Bank loft and is joined and abandoned there by her lover (José Luis de Vilallonga); she is visited by her songwriters (one of whom is played, exuberantly, by Michel Legrand himself); she dashes out to meet a friend who works as an artists’ model (Dorothée Blanck), but to little avail. As the threat of impending death weighs on Cleo, she seeks company with an obsessive frenzy and is thrown relentlessly back into solitude; seeking distraction amid the turbulence of city life, she finds only reminders of her mortal terror.
Filming the sights (and sounds) of Paris with voracious visual delight, Varda embraces the turbulent distractions of public life, even as she filters them through Cleo’s shattered consciousness. As Cleo rushes through the streets, passersby, caught by surprise by the camera, turn toward it as if glancing at the minor star in their presence. As Cleo wanders through a busy café, she catches snippets of dialogue, glimpses into the lives of others that, in her oppressed state of mind, seem more like glimpses of lives from which she is shut out. Long scenes of driving through Paris offer a feast of urban textures along with ample views of injury, infirmity, and the daily grotesque. Simple incidents are rich in fascinating overtones and grim omens; a ride with a female taxi driver brings radio news of the war in Algeria and the driver’s tale of being attacked at work. An encounter in a park, with an engaging young man (played by the theatre director Antoine Bourseiller), reveals that he’s a soldier on leave from service in that war, which he describes briefly but with horror.
Varda films artistic circles in which she moved and catapults them into the realm of imagination. One brilliant sequence, of Cleo singing a new song by the visiting composers, morphs in a single long take from a casual rehearsal to a grand, quasi-operatic aria (with dubbed-in orchestral accompaniment) that thrusts Cleo back into her anguish. Visiting a movie-theatre projectionist (played by the still photographer Raymond Cauchetier), she watches a short silent comedy that he’s projecting (actually a film-within-a-film, made by Varda herself and starring her friends Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina) and finds that it, too, deals with sickness and death.
Throughout the film, in milieu high and low, public and private, Cleo finds herself forced into the presence of mirrors. An early sequence, in a corridor, is fractured by jittering jump cuts and wrenched by Cleo’s voice-over; soon thereafter, a visit to a hat shop, with its plethora of mirrors, becomes a trip into psychodramatic wilderness. One café scene features brilliant, virtual split-screen effects with mirrors; another café scene shows Cleo unhappily noticing herself in a column tiled with mirrors; and the movie-theatre scene is punctuated with the superstitious tragedy of Cleo’s own shattered pocket mirror. In fusing Cleo’s intricate consciousness with the teeming vitality of city life and the fine grain of daily activity, Varda displays her vast artistic inspiration and expands the power of the cinema itself.
Stream “Cleo from 5 to 7” at Kanopy.
Other great films by Varda are available to stream, including “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” at Amazon Prime; “Daguerréotypes,” at Kanopy and Amazon Prime; and “The Beaches of Agnès,” at Kanopy and iTunes.