There has already been much written on Agnès Varda´s Cleo de 5 à 7, perhaps too much on the sequences featuring Michel Legrand and the silent film within a film with Jean-Luc Godard, Ana Karina, Sami Frey, Eddie Constantine and others. Upon her death earlier this year, I thought it a kind of sexism that these were the bits of her oeuvre that were most circulated, the kind of greatness-by-association that must have characterised and possibly blighted some of her life with Jacques Demy.
Mirrors, Reflections, Compositions
Cléo de 5 à 7 is to me as great as anything produced by the French New Wave, with that same exuberant love of and experimentation with cinema that one sees in the best of Godard, Truffaut, or in the same period but in Quebec, Claude Jutra´s À tout prendre. I was dazzled by her compositions, the use of mirrors and reflections, partly to illustrate the duality of Cléo, the pop singer who´s real name is Florence, but partly also to bring the outside into the inside in cafés and bars. She does the same when filming from outside so you see the reflection on the street whilst also seeing the place and characters behind the window.
The fim begins wittily with a game of tarot cards, filmed in colour, as the main themes of the film are dramatized: she´s a successful pop singer, with a lover who´s rich and kind but whom she´s not quite in love with; she´s got health problems and will only find out if they´re fatal later in the day. She leaves the tarot session certain of her death and wonders around Paris drinking coffee, having anxiety attacks with friends, buying a new hat, commenting on how she´s still beautiful and how beauty might be health. She visits a friend who´s posing nude for an art class, they watch a silent film, she wonders around a park and meets a man who she takes to. Amidst the bustle of the city, the friendships, the art, there´s the presence of death. But of love too.
That´s the plot, structured through several episodes timed chronologically that last the duration of the film to replicate real time: the film would have been more accurately titled Cléo de 5 á 6:30, but then it would have lost the sexual connotations of 5 à 7, sex in the afternoon, often, as is hinted here, with a married man. The allusion is further underlined with the discussion later in the film of Cléo de Mérode, the dancer and singer who is best known for being one of the most famous courtesans of the Belle Epoque.
But that´s not the whole movie. There are also marvellous rides where personal troubles are placed in the context of the moveable feast that is the city itself, one with a female cab driver who chats about the pleasures and difficulties of being one. Paris is as much a character in the movie as anyone but Cléo, and in Cléo, women are literally in the driver´s seat. Structurally, the story is told episodically but as if in real time. It´s got a marvellous mise-en-scène, compositions that expressively optimise space; there is shopping, posing, singing, discussions about art, love and politics that seep through, are on the radio, overheard. The editing is as inventive and expressive as anything in the French New Wave. And of course there are several songs, of which the one below is a stand-out, partly because of the beauty of the song itself, how it comments on Cléo´s life, but also how the camera swirls around her until a moment of self-recognition where she sings and cries directly at us, the audience:
This is a film by a young woman in love with cinema. and about a character in love with Paris, life and love, all in the midst of destructive forces, political and physiological, that are outside her control and present her with an existential crisis. It´s a film that flows beautifully and leaves one buoyant. I could kick myself for waiting until the age of 56 to see it. I hope you´re not as dumb.
This is what Varda herself has to say about Cléo in Les plages d’Agnès:
Bertrand Tavernier, in his wonderful A Personal Journey Through French Cinema, was the publicist for the film, and offers this lovely reminiscence: