Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

4/5

Cleo de 5 à 7

France; Agnés Varda

 

All Audiences

 

 

Florence, nicknamed Cleo (Corinne Marchand), spends two of her life’s most desperate hours wandering around the streets of Paris, anxiously awaiting the results of her tests for cancer. As she tries to sing her worries away, spends money, comforts herself with her own beauty and watches comedic films, the specter of death insidiously comes back to haunt her, surfacing in each macabre detail of the French capital’s busy streets.

 

As the hand-held camera glides through the bustling streets of Paris, picking up several vérité bits en route, it is impossible not to think of À Bout de Souffle, the opening salvo of the French New Wave. Technically, but also tonally, this is built on the same formula, to the point where one might decry a facsimile. However, it is undeniable that Varda drifts with grace from one psychological extreme to the next, and her Cleo de 5 à 7 is a moving, affecting psychological marathon, of a heightened sensibility. But the ensemble is hurt by a certain emotional frigidness, a lack of verve, impetus and focus. Despite a last-act recovery, the film misses that warm sense of playfulness and absurd poetry so emblematic of the New Wave, especially in the dynamics between the characters.

 

The truth is that Cleo spends most of the film shying the cameras, hiding behind lavish wigs and opaque sunglasses. Unlike Godard’s Jean Seberg, Marchand seems strangely reluctant to offer herself to Varda’s camera, with that blend of gamine insouciance and feline seduction that made the former’s sole role such an unforgettable tour de force. Characterized by an aesthetic and visual austerity, Cloe de 5 à 7 nevertheless has its forceful moments, and this is when this universal and timeless study of man brutally awakened to the insidious revelation of his mortality really takes off.

 

If Varda’s approach differs from the ones of her male forerunners, there is an unquestionably fluidity, a dialogue between Cleo de 5 à 7 and À Bout de Souffle, which goes far beyond the technical similarities. To speak in Hollywoodian terms, it is amusing to regard Cleo as some sort of sequel, following Seberg’s innocent-with-a-twist as she matures and comes to terms with the fundamental transience of her existence, in the familiar setting of the bustling French capital. Is Varda’s debut about the belated blossoming of a carefree Delilah, so walled up in her narcissism as to be still innocent?

 

Cloe not only awakens to the reality of death, but, as the film progresses, plays and toys with this knowledge, with a blend of fear, desperation and morbid fascination. But this is at bottom a story of hope, and by the final frame the heroine will have risen above her earthly angsts.

 

Cleo de 5 a 7 02 g

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