Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cléo From 5 to 7

Early in Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cléo From 5 to 7, the title character (Corinne Marchand), a singer awaiting the results of a biopsy, leaves the apartment of a tarot card reader and, descending a staircase, faces a mirror (one of a countless number in the film) and delivers a neat summation of her worldview. As Varda stages the shot, the mirror that Cléo looks into is situated across from another mirror (located offscreen), so the singer's image is fragmented into an innumerable series of reflections. Varda then cuts to a close-up so we see only a single reflection and Cléo says, "ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I'm beautiful I'm alive." For Cléo, at the film's beginning, what counts is the surface and not even the genuine surface, but a heavily doctored approximation. Made up with wig, jewels and furs, using an assumed name (at the end of the film we learn her real name is Florence), Cléo exists in so far as she is beautiful and that others see her as such. The mirror, the dominant motif of the film's first half, suggests both sides of Cléo's narcissism, the need to be seen in reflection (as others see her) and the distortion that she requires to achieve her conception of beauty. As long as she is beautiful (or she appears beautiful, same thing) she is alive, she exists. The dual threat of the cancer is that it may create a kind of ugliness by deforming the body (although the cancer itself may be invisible - it is in the stomach - surely the treatment would create bodily distortion) as well as leading to a literal death, the physical manifestation of Cléo's dreaded "ugliness" of which the cancer becomes the symbol.

Perhaps because she is forced to consider the consequences of the disease, Cléo's narcissism begins to dissipate during the course of the film. The key moment in the singer's change of view comes halfway through the film when, having divested herself of her wig and her furs, she strolls out alone on the Parisian streets. Coming to rest by a mirror outside a Chinese restaurant, she again addresses her reflection, but this time with a notable modification of viewpoint. "My unchanging doll's face, this ridiculous hat," she says, taking off the newly purchased headpiece that she earlier attached so much importance to. "I can't see my own fears. I thought everyone looked at me. I only look at myself. It wears me out." As if to test this formulation, she then proceeds to a crowded café where she plays her hit single on the jukebox. The reaction of the crowd ranges from minor annoyance to complete indifference. Of vast importance to herself, she is here forced to acknowledge the minor role she plays in the lives of others who have their own personal concerns and cannot be bothered with the presence of a minor pop star.

Reflecting Cléo's acknowledgment of her relative insignificance, Varda alters her aesthetic approach during the film's second half. The mirror motif, so prevalent early on, is nearly absent from the film's conclusion. In addition, Varda's numerous jump cuts, whirling camera movements and rapid-fire montage give way to a more restrained aesthetic of longer takes, fluid camera motion and even a series of fixed shots. These later dominate a sequence in the park where a talkative soldier, on the eve of departing for war, befriends Cléo and the two sit on a bench and talk. The constant motion of Paris gives way the to the quiet of the relatively natural setting. Since the soldier is unaware of her celebrity status and she no longer feels the need to be defined as "Cléo", the singer introduces herself by her real name (Florence) and is free to interact with her interlocutor in a more honest interchange, unfiltered by any of the artificial barriers that she had previously required to define herself in her relationships with others. As Varda fixes the characters in a two-shot on the bench, the park's lush greenery dominating the background, she achieves for her heroine a sense of freedom not possible in any of the film's previous scenes. Although Cléo's attitudes have not entirely changed (she tells the soldier, "for me nudity is indiscreet. It's like night and illness," suggesting again the need to dress up one's actual self, the alternative being ugliness and death), the scene acknowledges her capacity to achieve at least a momentary happiness free from the demands of her prior narcissism.

One of the real pleasures of Varda's film is its vivid depiction of early 1960s Paris. Shot on the streets and in the cafés of the city, the picture intercuts Cléo's story with what can only be described as a photo-essay detailing a very specific time and place. Lingering close-ups of the faces of ordinary Parisians, snippets of conversations picked up in cafés (often discussions of the Algerian War), shots of student protesters, footage from a generous sampling of the city's neighborhoods, these documentary elements combine and alternate with the fictional story to both grant immediacy to Cléo's trials and to create an important historical-social document in their own right. Varda neatly integrates these segments with the narrative, while allowing them to exist as a distinct cinematic element. For example, in one scene, Cléo rides along in a car with a friend. The friend pulls over and briefly runs inside a building to perform a quick errand. As Cléo waits, Varda introduces a montage, intercutting footage of a series of people on the street that the singer observes. Although ostensibly representing Cléo's viewpoint, the footage registers as an autonomous segment, a mini-essay set neatly apart from the world of the film's characters.

Probably the best-known formal element in Varda's film is her decision to shoot the picture virtually in real-time, following Cléo between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., trimming the film's two-hour diegetic time-span by half an hour to fit the 90-minute running time. Like the documentary footage and the quick cuts, this approach (of which the audience is continually reminded by a series of chapter headings which display the current time) adds a real immediacy to the film, reflecting the genuine sense of crisis (both of identity and physical health) experienced by Cléo, but the film offers the viewer so much that this gimmick's function is largely reduced to serving as a narrative framework and is soon forgotten amidst the film's more lasting pleasures. A fully realized work and an early entry in the Nouvelle Vague, Varda's film is one of the more succesful (if infrequently viewed) achievements of that movement. At once a highly personal and a universally resonant work, Cléo From 5 to 7, which had a brief run at the Film Forum earlier this year and is available on DVD from Criterion, is now readily viewable and should soon come to assume its rightful place in the cinematic canon.

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