Agnès Varda’s piquant tale of a beautiful young singer’s existential crisis, told in real-time, is part subversive fairy-tale and part innovative character study. This dynamic and influential film has remained impervious to the ravages of time yet, despite its radiance and reputation, it is currently only available on second-hand VHS or Region 1 DVD.
Cléo de 5 à 7 is recognisably a product of the wildly inventive French cinema of the time, known as the nouvelle vague or new wave. Although Varda was not part of the prominent Cahiers du Cinéma clique (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut et al.) she was involved with an associated collective, the Left Bank Group, who also rose to prominence during the late 50s and early 60s, and whose fellows included her husband Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais.
Cléo de 5 à 7 opens in colour, on an aerial view of a table upon which tarot cards are being fatally drawn. As voices become faces, the film switches to black and white, revealing the recipient of the reading as our heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand). After hearing ominous news she leaves in visible distress and the wicked fortune-teller irresistibly gossips to a gentleman secreted away in an adjoining room, confiding that, “The cards spelled death, and I saw cancer. She is doomed.” As she exits the building, Cléo fleetingly takes proud stock of her immaculate reflection telling herself, ambiguously, “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”
This fantastical prophecy and Cléo’s clearly fragile state of mind should figuratively colour the rest of the film a melancholic blue but Varda uses every trick in her formidable stylistic arsenal to ensure that what follows is far from downbeat. Over the film’s duration Cléo’s initially maudlin and occasionally melodramatic reaction to her assumed cancer evolves into restlessness and recognition of her own ennui; through Cléo’s evolution Varda challenges the value society attaches to physical perfection. This believably and imaginatively executed character arc forms the film’s central focus.
Corinne Marchand excels as Cléo, a fledgling chanteuse; luminous, spoilt and plunged into existential turbulence as she anxiously awaits the results of a medical examination. Cléo’s historic tendency as a malingerer means her companions treat her complaints with a healthy insouciance; she is the girl who cried wolf and consequently finds little sympathy. Her ‘Prince Charming’ José (José-Luis de Vilallonga) is introduced in a cursory visit: flittish and insubstantial, he fails to give any credence to her symptoms and is thus revealed as nothing but a frog.
A particular highlight is Varda’s bravura sequence where Cléo’s lively recital morphs into her full-blooded, context-deprived, straight-to-camera rendition of Michel Legrand and Agnès Varda’s marvellous “Cry of Love” (which subsequently appears acoustically in several diverse guises throughout the rest of the film). The emotional impact of the performance prompts the scales to fall, as tears, from Cléo’s eyes; she sheds her princess’ robes, tears her ludicrously tousled wig from her head and flees her ivory tower clad in black.
Varda’s nomadic camera mirrors the restless energy of Cléo’s anxious wait. Cléo’s curious, contemplative wanderings propel the narrative. The film is in part an ode to Paris viewed through the prism of a woman tentatively reconnecting with it – this is Parisian society as a restorative tonic. Passers-by eyeball the camera – which doubles for Cléo – playing on her sense of paranoia. Varda deftly turns a hazard of location film shoots to her own advantage, ingeniously applying it to enhance our understanding of Cléo’s psychology.
Along the way there is plenty of joviality. The film features a silent short with cameos from new wave luminaries Jean Luc-Godard, Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy. Varda’s inventive and sometimes witty compositions are a pleasure: Cléo swings back and forth flanked by an enormous pair of angel wings; she sits petulantly in a café against a giant mirror which creates a disorientating split screen effect; Varda conjures romance on a bus as Cléo and Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), a charming soldier, are framed against a succession of Parisian images. The score by Michel Legrand (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) is a constant delight, as are Varda’s experimentations with diegetic sound. As with many of her peers, her directorial disobedience is her strength.
In Cléo de 5 à 7 Varda seamlessly marries superstitious fantasy, auteurist trickery and verisimilitude in a heady cinematic cocktail. One of the most exciting and enduring films of the new wave era. Seek it out and see.