I hadn´t seen the film for years. I´d forgotten how beautiful it is. Each frame a painting, as they say, filmed by Raoul Coutard. And each evocative, expressive, beautiful. But it´s 24 of them a second, part of a shot, often accompanied by dialogue or Georges Delerue´s beautiful score. And there´s Bardot, and Piccoli, and Jack Palance and Lang and Bazin and cinema as it once was, and even then in the process of becoming something else. I couldn´t stop myself from grabbing frames. It´s on MUBI.
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:
I saw Elena et les hommes last night but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, not really. It’s an elegant farce about a Polish Princess down to her last pearl who goes on a roundelay of possible husbands including Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer, all madly in love with her. She in turn is in love with making them live up to what she sees as their potential, helping to make them be the men she thinks they ought to be, which in the case of Jean Marais means becoming President of the Republic. It’s a charming film, funny, endearing; lots of people chase after each other in a small house whilst Ingrid Bergman, at her scattiest and blondest, looks impossibly beautiful in tight Belle Epoque corsets, figure-hugging skirts and hats large enough to hold a small meadow or a large aviary.
What prompted me to write a note here is that from the very beginning of the film one is dazzled by the beauty of the colour. The opening title seems encased in bright little bombons or be-ribboned jewels of glistening red, blue and yellow. Jean is Auguste Renoir’s son of course but the cinematographer here is the equally great Claude Renoir, newphew of the director, grandson of the painter. Uncle and newphew both knew something about colour, composition, perspective and this film is their evocation, their particular articulation of what they learned from Auguste.
I saw Elena et les hommes at the Cine Doré in what I thought was a 35 mm print and this is what I wrote when I returned to my hotel:
‘The only reason I’m writing a note on the film here is that from the first shot one is dazzled by the beauty of the colours. Claude Renoir did the cinematography. I saw it on a gorgeous 35 mm print where the brightness, density, luminosity, the texture, the fine grain of the celluloid brought out every delicate variation of light and texture in hats and feathers and gave one the impression of partaking in breathtaking beauty’.
I understand that this type of work with light and colour is now possible in digital, but if so, why don’t we see it? It saddens me that such beauty, simply in the hue, brightness and luminosity of the colours not to speak of their masterly arrangement as in this film may be lost to us.’
Needless to say, I’m an idiot, and upon looking at the program I realized that what I had in fact been seeing was not a 35mm print but a restored print digitally projected, one which hopefully will be with us for many generations to come.
The program also included a thought-provoking quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If Elena et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it’s because it’s the most intelligent film in the world: Art simultaneous with a theory of art; beauty simultaneously with the secret of beauty; Cinema simultaneous with an explanation of cinema’.
And here I was simply mourning, erroneoulsly, that future generations wouldn’t be able to see the glorious gradations of texture and colour in a hat.