Blog Directory CineVerse: Her name is Cleo and she dances on the Seine

Her name is Cleo and she dances on the Seine

Friday, March 22, 2024

Released in 1962, Agnès Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 has impressively climbed the ranks among the greatest international cinematic works in recent years. Consider that, in a 2019 BBC poll, it was voted the second-best film directed by a woman, and it placed #14 in the Sight and Sound poll of 2022, making it the third-highest-ranking movie by a female director (one of several films helmed by women that are well represented on that list). This was deemed an important French New Wave work and a pioneering film for that time. Critic Molly Haskell called itthe first fully-achieved feature by the woman who would become the premiere female director of her generation.

Corinne Marchand takes center stage as Cléo Victoire, complemented by Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothée Blanck, and Michel Legrand in supporting roles. The narrative orbits around Cléo, a budding singer grappling with the anticipation of a medical diagnosis dictating her fate. Set within the condensed timeframe of two hours, from 5 pm to 7 pm, the film tracks Cléo's meandering journey through Parisian streets, offering a poignant examination of her introspections, fears, and interpersonal connections.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

What’s particularly memorable and distinctive about this movie is that it occurs in real-time, with a 90-minute runtime that roughly depicts the minute-by-minute experiences of Cleo between 5 and 6:30 p.m. on a single summer afternoon (the summer solstice). Interestingly, the story ends prematurely, not spanning until 7 p.m., which poses questions and theories about why.

Its plot-driving motivator is to learn if Cleo has a terminal illness, but the story is more of a series of loosely linked or unconnected vignettes, as we observe the titular character drift from one encounter or experience to another, from the opening scene with a tarot card reader to a visit with her manager to a café and hat shop to a taxi ride to a sequence in her apartment with her lover and her songwriters to a reunion with her friend Dorothee to a stopover at a movie house to her walking in the park and meeting the soldier Antoine. Despite its lack of plot, the movie explores existential themes such as the fear of death, the essence of identity, and the quest for life's meaning. Cleo's journey in the film encourages viewers to reflect on their own mortality and the importance of human connections.

Perhaps the most fascinating facet of Cleo from 5 to 7 is its sense of spontaneous cinematic energy and aliveness thanks to the unforgettable handheld camera shots capturing Cleo as she walks among the masses in Paris; these unrehearsed and organic shots grace the picture with an authenticity and artless exuberance. We notice that men and women turn their heads and stare at Cleo or the camera, which reinforces how she’s a celebrity and an attractive woman who values her beauty. Film critic Adrian Martin wrote: “Cléo from 5 to 7 seemed to embody the prime obsession of all the young cinema movements of the sixties: to evoke the eternal present, flashing by in a sustained intensity.”

Varda also utilizes nontraditional compositions, jump cuts, editing loops (three similar shots of her descending the staircase), lengthy shots, an opening color sequence that contrasts with the monochrome of the rest of the film, and infusions of contemporary news and politics (the radio report of the Algiers conflict).

Cleo from 5 to 7 reminds us that our destiny is not written. Our heroine is convinced from the start of the narrative, via the tarot reading, that she has terminal cancer, but we learn from her doctor at the conclusion that it is treatable and not fatal. We also notice that the story ends at 6:30, 30 minutes short of the 7 o’clock hour mentioned in the title.

What happens in that last half hour? Maybe she develops a more intimate affection with Antoine and comes further out of her shell, more open to the possibilities of loving someone else besides yourself. Consider that Antoine prefers her real name Florence; perhaps the story ends at 6:30 because in those last 30 minutes offscreen, she has come to accept herself as the more relatable and human Florence and no longer as Cleo, the pop singer with an image to maintain. She's chosen to live life on her own time.

Takeaway #2? Our lives can change quickly for the better if we open our eyes. Cleo from 5 to 7 is about transitioning from inward to outward, from insular to broad-minded, and from fear to joy. Haskell continued: “It is an odyssey that, like so many French films, is about the double delight of watching a beautiful woman against the backdrop of the most beautiful of cities, but it is also a spiritual journey from blindness to awareness, and from self-absorption to the possibility of love…Through an arresting use of Paris as both visual centerpiece and reflection of a woman’s inner journey, Varda paints an enduring portrait of a woman’s evolution from a shallow and superstitious child-woman to a person who can feel and express shock and anguish and finally empathy.”

This film is also concerned with navigating modern life in a complicated world as a woman, and how females, fairly or unfairly, draw negative and positive attention. Cleo from 5 to 7 illustrates how men and women alike can’t help but gaze at, admire, covet, and desire a young and attractive female. Varda doesn’t objectify or unabashedly sexualize Cleo in male gaze fashion, but she deliberately casts an alluring young actress for this role; the handheld camera scenes are particularly revealing, showing numerous men turning their heads and eyeballing Cleo. From a feminist standpoint, the film provides insight into the experiences of women in society, particularly during the 1960s. Through Cleo's character and her interactions with others, messages of female empowerment, objectification, and the limitations imposed by gender norms are evident.

Similar works

  • Other films set in real-time and concerned with temporal matters, including Rope, High Noon, 12 Angry Men, The Set Up, and Russian Ark
  • French New Wave films of this period, such as Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Vivre Sa Vie Masculin Feminin, and others
  • Murnaugh’s silent Sunrise in how it recreates that film’s streetcar scene

Other films by Agnes Varda

  • Le Bonheur
  • Vagabond
  • Faces Places
  • La Pointe Courte

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