An early sequence clearly marks Cleo from 5 to 7 as an artifact of the French New Wave: as Cleo (Corinne Marchand) walks down a staircase, the action is captured in a series of jump cuts that call attention to form in an exciting and then-new way. Yet the movie stands apart from the French New Wave in that it is very much the story of a woman, not about a woman. (You could argue Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, despite its title, was the latter.)
Written and directed by Agnes Varda, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a jumble of techniques, including a switch from color to black and white and occasional voiceover inserts. Such flourishes are more abruptly handled here than they are in the work of contemporaries like Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, so that at times this has the feel of an improvisational, experimental film. And then there are the documentary elements, especially the long shots of Cleo walking amidst the crowded Parisian streets, parting the sea of humanity with her ethereal glamour.
Cleo, you see, is a French pop star who has left her cocoon of handlers in a state of distress. Awaiting the results of a cancer test, she spends an agonizing two hours flitting among stores and cafes, simultaneously courting attention and deflecting it. A defining image is the one of Cleo trying on hats in a boutique, which we watch through the store’s window. The various reflections capture Cleo watching herself, even as the pedestrians watching her are reflected in the window’s glass. As the movie goes on, what at first appears to be vanity on Cleo’s part matures into introspection. The threat of mortality has her, perhaps for the first time, considering what her beauty – indeed, what her life – is worth.
Two throwaway moments capture this changing sense of self nicely, especially when they’re considered as bookends. Early on, as a crowd of pedestrians waits to cross an intersection, Cleo brazenly steps past them into the street, confident she’ll be able to literally stop traffic. And she does. Later, however, after Cleo’s confidence has been chipped away by increasing worry, she tries to make her way through a line of pedestrians, but no one budges. They hardly notice her.
It would be dangerous to psychoanalyze too much of Cleo’s behavior.
Varda often uses movement to capture emotion. Riding in a car with a friend (Dorothee Blanck), Cleo reveals her illness just as they plunge into a black tunnel. As Cleo rehearses a potential new song in her studio, the camera mimics the swinging rhythm of her personal assistant (Dominique Davray), who is listening and swaying in the background.
In fact, unlike the talky philosophizing that dominates some New Wave films, there’s only one on-the-nose line here. But it’s so lovely I’m willing to forgive it. In a conversation with her friend, who poses nude for sculptors, Cleo asks her why she doesn’t feel self-conscious. “My body makes me happy,” the friend replies, “not proud.”
Other factors besides her illness are preventing Cleo from reaching such a state of contentment, including the love-hate relationship she seems to have with the gaze of others. Ignored in a café, she pathetically puts one of her own songs on the jukebox, then waits for recognition to set in. Yet as she walks down the street, we get a distressing POV shot of the way men let their eyes linger on her. The sequence is interspersed with insert shots of her assistant and others giving her a direct stare, suggesting that Cleo registers such attention as unwanted judgment.
Children seem to be something of a foil for Cleo, as well. At that café, a pair of women dealing with their kids at the next table is too preoccupied to notice her. In another scene, Cleo marches past a lone child banging on a toy piano on the sidewalk without acknowledging his presence. And then there is the surreal image of an infant in an incubator being wheeled down the street, as Cleo passes by in a trolley. Is this the haunting prospect of motherhood, something Cleo may have not previously considered but is now possibly slipping from her grasp?
It would be dangerous to psychoanalyze too much of Cleo’s behavior – especially when Marchand plays her, at least on the surface, with a vapid sort of remove. (Indeed, for a while Marchand is out-acted by her spectacular dresses, including a polka dot design with a skirt that doubles as a miniature train.) It isn’t the job of Cleo from 5 to 7 to explain all women, after all, or even this particular one. Simply being in her company, especially amidst the somewhat suffocating masculinity of the French New Wave, is enough.