Gilbert (Sami Frey) to Dominique (Brigitte Bardot): ‘If Bach doesn´t wow you, who does’? ‘Marlon Brando’:
Gilbert (Sami Frey) to Dominique (Brigitte Bardot): ‘If Bach doesn´t wow you, who does’? ‘Marlon Brando’:
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:
A gorgeous restoration of a Clouzot classic. Bardot has killed the man she loves, who also happens to be her sister’s fiancée. But what she’s really on trial for is for being a woman, for being young and for being unconventional. It’s 1960 France that the film really judges and finds wanting. Clouzot fills the frame with dozens of pretentious hypocrites or figures of authority, condemning them all. Bardot, always at the centre, is a beacon of beauty, truth, and liberty. She accepts who she is, chooses to act in freedom, and takes responsibility for her action. Bardot’s Dominique Marceau is French Cinema’s greatest and most romantic existentialist heroine. Bardot in La verité is what people claim falsely for Brando in The Wild One. She and the film are both great.
César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.
César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.
Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular, there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980) which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.
But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.
At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.
These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.
Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be; big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.
The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.
Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie: there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie is exquisite.