Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Director: Agnès Varda
Writer: Agnès Varda
DP: Jean Rabier, Alain Levent
Editor: Rose Sokol, Janine Verneau
Score: Michel Legrand
Producer: Agnès Varda
Starring: Corrine Marchand, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blanck, Antoine Bourseiller
Distribution: Zenith International Films
Length: 1 hr. 30 min.

Two days prior to the beginning of Cléo from 5 to 7, the titular Cléo learned she may have cancer, and is waiting on test results.  Such a stark reminder of her mortality creates a difference in perspective between her and those around her: her friends and colleagues insist that she remain positive and ignore the possible threat on her life until the test results come in, but she finds it impossible to accommodate them.

She’s a professional singer out of joint with her audience.  The attempts at sympathy made by those around her fail utterly, and it's difficult for Cléo to ask for support.  They all want her to focus on work, insisting that it will distract her, but to Cléo, a distraction would be wasting potentially limited time.  At the same time, part of their relationship to her is professional, and their work is to build a marketable persona for her; asking them for support might break that.  She's caught in a trap, where her way of life has demanded that she become accustomed to tailoring her behavior to please people.

So, Cléo spins her wheels struggling to please these people until the film's best scene.  It's a turning point, the moment in which Cléo begins to see herself as a subject.  She sings along with the score to address her loneliness, in an indirect attempt to reach her coworkers.  Briefly, everything in the frame besides Cléo is obscured and the sound design defies logic.  The film almost breaks the fourth wall, allowing the viewer to become Cléo's companion in her most pronounced moment of despair.  Roger Ebert said director Agnès Varda was one of the nicest people he'd ever met, and that she was able to create such a scene is a testament to that.

This scene is also an example of how, like other films of the French New Wave, Cléo from 5 to 7 finds a certain ecstasy in film and filmmaking.  The dramatic framing, the idiosyncratic editing, and the movement of the camera to single out details that would be otherwise unnoticeable, all serve to show how the camera’s eye can portray Cléo’s situation more sympathetically than the eye of a human observer.

The film makes a point of highlighting the things the characters do simply for the sake of enjoying them rather than for the sake of others.  Cléo’s perception of such things is warped because of her inability to act as her own audience.  The unity between her career and her passion should be ideal, but because she’s strictly oriented in the present by the prospect of imminent death, she has to approach it differently.  This change manifests in how the film portrays her music, which changes from an unwelcome relic of the face she once showed the world to an engine of consideration for her own subjectivity.

The film plays out very nearly in real time to keep us as grounded in the present as Cléo is, and occasionally uses voice-over and montage to directly explain to us what Cléo feels.  However, perhaps the most moving aspect of the film's production is the thing that bridges the emotive content and the informative content: Michel Legrand's score.  The score is varied and absolutely beautiful, and it meshes perfectly with the narrative because of Cléo's profession.

Eventually, Cléo gets some relief from people who can see her for her, and offer her sympathy based in understanding. It's interesting to note that even though the film depicts little more than a woman moving from one group of friends to another, it feels like a full narrative arcCléo's decision to accept her own feelings and seek out people who would try to understand them gains new significance because of this.  This is important, because alhough the main character lives in fear of bad medical test results, the film is about more than the difficulties of someone in her specific situation.  The film draws out our ability to sympathize with Cléo's personal drama, and then it challenges us to consider how this may factor into other contexts.  It suggests that similarly isolating, but different fears from those Cléo struggles with are an issue for people in the military or other potentially dangerous jobs.  

It's very difficult to describe what I felt at the end of Cléo from 5 to 7.  Any person's reaction to it would likely be different, because some of the surface details seem opposed to each other, and while the final scenes do have a certain tone, it's very difficult if not impossible to say why.  But I say it's to the film's credit if it can use the medium to capture something unspoken.


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