Cléo from 5 to 7 is the second movie of Agnès Varda. It is as much a postcard of Paris during the 1960s as the story of a personal drama about existential questions. Released in 1962 (one year after Breathless by Godard), this movie is not a typical French New Wave’s movie firstly because Varda is a woman but also because she wasn’t in the original crew of the French cineasts who wrote in the Cahiers du Cinéma. Interestingly, Madonna, who loved the movie, wanted to make a remake of it … but fortunately Varda refused.
If Cléo from 5 to 7 shares some characteristics with the documentary genre, it has to be known that this movie is really not a documentary but rather a modern cine-poem raising questions on several dualisms: Eros/Thanatos; to gaze/ to be gazed; art/craft; reality/fiction; light/darkness; …
From a personal standpoint, this movie is all the more moving as it was shot in Montparnasse, the neighborhood where I used to live for 2 years of my life. Before starting the analysis, let’s give a brief summary of the movie:
« Cléo (played by Corinne Marchand) is a pop singer who wanders around Paris while she awaits her biopsy results in fear she may have cancer. As Cléo readies herself to meet with her doctor at 7 o’clock, she meets with several friends and strangers while trying to grapple with mortality. Sensing indifference from those nearest to her, she finds herself questioning the doll-like image people have of her and is overcome by a feeling of solitude and helplessness. She finally finds some comfort in the company of stranger she meets in a park and with whom she is able to have a sincere conversation. He accompanies her to the hospital, where she meets the doctor who will give her the results of the exam ».
The gaze: « The first feminist act of a woman is to gaze, to say « ok I am gazed at but I can also gaze » (Agnès Varda).
In the movie, Cléo experiences three distinctive stages in her relation with the gaze. First, she is the oe who is gazed at, then she starts to master her ability to have her own gaze and eventually she associates her gaze with the one of Antoine.
1) If Cléo is a famous singer, it is not because of her voice but because of her physcial appearance: she wears a wig, puts make-up and have an expensive garde-robe.In the street, she is an object of contemplation and she is conscious about it and like it. She feels pleased to be the object of every masculine gaze. Her Parisian flat accentuates this ascendancy of the physical look by the numerous mirrors on the walls. When she looks at herself in a mirror, she sees Cléo the singer and not Florence (her real name) the average girl. Cléo is the standardized fantasy of every men. Interestingly, the room of Cléo is a marvellous microcosm with its swing, its mirrors and its fairy-tale bed. It’s because Cléo lives in a fairy-tale: when her lover enters the room, a musical romantic song can be heard while Cléo is dressed like a Walt Dysney’s princess.
Actually, Cléo’s flat is a kind of theater where the standardized masculine fantasies are projected. It is the place where she rehearses her songs (she can’t write her own songs) and restitutes a preconceived idea of feminine attractiveness. However, the fact that Cléo is maybe gravely sick will lead her to question her gaze and the gaze of the others. She is going to change her position and become the one who gazes. To achieve this she has to give up all the physical subtleties of her every day life as a singer. She goes behind a curtain , takes another dress and put off her wig. Symbolically, she rejects this theather world which alienates her and makes her passive.
2) The gaze of the other:
Henceforth alone in the streets of Paris, Cléo starts to confront her gaze with the gaze of the other Parisians. Whereas her flat was the symbol of a fictional marvellous theather, the streets of Paris are much more like a circus with its frog eaters, and other strange performers. As we can see in this screenshot, Cléo is not individualized anymore, she is just another gaze in the crowd.
In the café scene, it is not mirrors which are hang on the walls anymore but paintings. Here Varda depicts the Paris of the artists who argue on Picasso or on surrealism while drinking their coffee. In this peculiar scene, Cléo looks completely lost. Actually, she tries to attract the gaze of the people in the café because she isn’t able to reflect her own face on the missing mirrors.
One of the most beautiful scene, for me, is the scene in the sculptors workshop. Here again in this scene, the gaze is questioned. Cléo goes to this place to meet her friend Dorothée who is a model for the sculptors. Contrary to Cléo, Dorothée feels at ease with her nudity and her body. However, what is important in this scene is that the gaze of the sculptor on the model is fundamentally different from the gaze of the average street man on Cléo. Indeed, Cléo is emprisoned in the men’s gaze whereas Dorothée is only gazed at to generates the imagination and creativity of the artist. Interestingly, in Greek, Dorothée is formed by doron (gift) and théos (God). In the movie, Dorothée offers her body to the artist as a gift and the artist creates an artwork as a demiurge. The initial image of Dorothée won’t be alienated by the gaze of the artist.
Symbolically, when Cléo goes out of the workshop, one of her mirrors falls on the ground and is broken. Her previous conception of the gaze is broken, she starts to realize the numerous potentialities of the gaze. During the last stage of her wandering, she will not be Cléo anymore but Florence (a first name which is associated to the Renaissance and thus to the Art)
. This last part of our reflexion on the gaze in Cléo from 5 to 7 corresponds to the meeting between Cléo-Florence and Antoine. Alone with Antoine, she starts to realize that the gaze is not a one-player game but a perpetual exchange. We can see that on the mise-en-scène because the shots-reverse-shots disappear and are replaced by the framing of both characters, of both gazes in a single shot. The two gazes have henceforth the same value. When Cléo eventually finds someone with an authentic gaze, I believe that she starts to experience nudity. Indeed, what is the real nudity? The physical one of the model in the workshop? Or rather the one of two people who are both looking at each other in a silence mutual gaze ? For me, at the end of the movie, Cléo experiences the real nudity, the nudity of the soul.
Love, Death and Time:
“Je voudrais que l’histoire de Cléo, jeune femme blessée dans sa chair, et sans doute promise à la mort, beauté sans armes, esprit sans défense, que cette histoire touche les gens comme me touchent les peintures de Baldung Grien, où l’on voit de superbes femmes blondes et nues enlacées par des squelettes.” (Agnès Varda)
The title of the movie suggests a love rendez-vous, but the generic of the movie suggests something more scary, perhaps an appointment with Death. During all the movie, with all the chapters and the indication of the time, the temporality is opressing for Cléo. Threaten by sickness, Cléo tries to find a shelter in her room where the idea of Death is excluded. As said previously, this place is like a fairy-tale room where the beauty of Cléo can’t be questioned. Varda even does an odd visual superimposition to imply that Cléo thinks she is immortal in her little microcosm. Indeed, when Cléo is playing with her swing, it seems that she has angel wings (see the picture). Like an angel, Cléo represents herself as forever beautiful. In her microcosm, everything is luminous and the darkness is excluded. For Cléo, it is either all white or eiter all black.
The movie in the movie (with the cameo presence of Godard and Anna Karina) which is seen by Dorothée and Cléo is actually echoing how Cléo is perceiving the world. Like the man in the little movie, Cléo believes that the world is either all love (when you don’t wear glasses) or either all death (when you wear the glasses). However, as she will discover after, reality is not all black or all white, light can’t be understood without darkness and, to a certain extent, love can’t be fully understood without Death.
Varda admited that she was inspired by a 16th century painter called Grien who painted beautiful women threaten by both Time and Death. Besides the Eros/Thanatos dualism, these paintings lead us to a reflexion on Time.
Grien’s paintings pertain to a tradition of the praise of women’s morbid beauty. One’s can think of Ronsard’s poem (e.g « Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie ») which are celebrating women’s beauty but also are depicting the inexorable oldness. What is behind this reminder of everyone’s Death? It is the Ronsard’s carpe diem, to seize the present and start considering love. Even with Baudelaire there is this Ronsardian thematic as we can see in the poem entitled « Carcass » :
— And yet you will be like this corruption,
Like this horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being,
You, my angel and my passion!
However, behind this tragic occurences of Death, there is a promise of Love by the poet. What Cléo learns with Antoine is that, even though Death is unescapable, Life has not to be the waiting of Death. Like Cléo sees it in one of the movie’s scenes when someone is randomly killed, Death can occur at every moment but it is also the case of Love.
When one of the most interesting characteristic of this movie is its documentary style. We are following Cléo during the real-time of her wandering from 5pm to 6:30pm. Moreover, during all the movie, there are informations (on radio, in conversations) about the political, social and cultural life in France (war in Algeria notably). What Varda seeks to do with this references to actuality is to erase the limits between reality and fiction, reality and Art. We can see this will in the cameo appearances of Goard, Legrand or Karina which are a duchampian (in reference to the French artist Marcel Duchamp) connection between Art and reality. In the last scene of the movie, Cléo seems to have mastered her gaze thanks to what she learned but also thanks to the authentic gaze of Antoine. Interstingly, the movie finishes on the two gazes of Antoine and Cléo in our direction. Perhaps, they are looking to us, the audience, ( like Pierrot in Pierrot le Fou by Godard) and thus are questioning our own existence.
To conclude, Cléo from 5 to 7 can be considered is a very personal work of art about existential concerns but also a modern cinematographic tribute to the Paris of the 1960s. A masterpiece.
PS: I put the link of a song by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra called « Paris Summer » whose lyrics match perfectly the last scenes of Cléo from 5 to 7. Enjoy !