in Criterion Month

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Back when I drafted Hiroshima mon amour, I remember joking about how pretentious the French New Wave’s left bank group must have been, given their reputation for considering right bank directors like François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard “too commercial.” But now that I’ve seen movies from a couple left bank directors (and read Colin’s many reviews) I’m realizing I actually had it backwards. I think the left bank was poking fun at the right bank for taking cinema too seriously. It’s less that one side was more intellectual than the other, and more that the left bank filmmakers were willing to play looser and get more experimental. So in the case of a movie like Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, we get a film that seriously tackles existentialism and feminism, but isn’t afraid to get goofy with it sometimes.

Actually, one other thing Cléo from 5 to 7 has in common with Hiroshima mon amour is a time limit. While Resnais’ film about two lovers unfolds over a lavish 36 hours, Varda takes such a small slice of life that events can play out in almost real time. As the title suggests, we follow a woman named Cléo (Corinne Marchand) from 5 to 7 pm as she awaits news from her doctor. She’s convinced her prognosis will be negative and a visit to a fortune teller seems to confirm those fears. So Cléo immediately does the most rational thing, the thing we’d all go do in a situation like this: she goes shopping. Along with her maid Angèle (Dominique Davray), Cléo visits a hat shop and immediately falls in love with a black fur hat, which she buys even though it’s the first day of summer. Actually that’s a good idea, you can usually get good deals on off-season clothes and merchandise.

Cléo has decided to go visit her doctor to get the news in person, as opposed to a phone call, but she has a lot of time to kill before she needs to head over there. So, you know, she travels all over her part of Paris. She visits a friend, goes to multiple cafés, takes a few taxi rides, goes to a park, goes to a movie… it’s a jam-packed couple of hours. And since this is a movie, the more time we spend with her, the more we learn about Cléo. Most importantly, she’s a singer in a relationship with a very busy man who has so little time for her he’s on screen for like two minutes total. But her profession and the men in her life, have a huge effect on Cléo’s sense of self worth.

It is made clear immediately that Cléo’s sense of self-worth is tied to her good looks. She quickly resolves to kill herself if her doctor tells her she has cancer and one of the only ways she can calm herself down early on in by reminding herself she’s still beautiful. This movie is full of mirrors and for at least the first half of it, Cléo can’t help but gaze at herself in them whenever she gets the chance. And as time goes on, she’s start to like what she sees less and less. She realizes that everyone in her life sees her as an object and her health scare is so incongruous with their perception of her they all choose to dismiss it. Cléo starts to realize she has done it too, she’s been so obsessed with how the world sees her, she’s forgotten how to see the world.

Again, Cléo is potentially facing a life-threatening disease. In a just world, her looks would be the last thing she’d have to think about. And thankfully, Varda’s world is not actually as dire as the first half of this story might lead you into accepting. Cléo manages to start visiting locations that aren’t depressing and have meaningful conversations with people who can offer her a different outlook. She starts to shed the character she’s been playing and become comfortable being the person she already was. Will a new outlook change what the doctor’s tests have revealed? Of course not. But it has the power to totally change how she feels about her condition, which is about as good as any of us can do.