Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)

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Directed by Agnes Varda

Cleo From 5 to 7 is somehow about both nothing and everything.  A famous French singer, Cleo, wanders around Paris for an hour and a half as she nervously awaits medical test results.  At the end she gets those results, which seem to confirm that she has cancer but that it is easily manageable.  She also meets a man, but that only happens in the last twenty minutes of the film.

This film feels like an intimate portrait of this woman, but the film goes to great lengths to demonstrate the degree to which her life is all a performance.  At first, the camera’s perspective bounces back and forth between close up shots of Cleo’s face and shots from much further away, like an omniscient entity looking down on her from above.  As the story goes on, she becomes more empowered to take control of her life, and suddenly the camera reflects her point of view, scanning the people around her as they stare right back at her.

So in addition to questions of mortality, this film is about the male gaze and the power of looking.  Cleo, we later learn, is really named Florence.  So her name, like her wig and her wardrobe and even career, are all constructed.  Like the illness plaguing her insides, Cleo is silently suffering under the clean, pretty exterior she shows to the world.  She’s rotting inside, and she struggles to grow because everyone around her is an enabler.

We see multiple people cater desperately to Cleo’s needs, and in doing so they are holding her back.  Each person calls her on her bullshit and neediness, but they don’t seem to realize that they are part of the problem.  Sure Cleo likes to whine and cry, requiring someone’s shoulder to cry on, but each of these people willingly allows her to be this way. She has become accustomed to the way people look at her, and more than that, she’s addicted to it.  She’s often looking in mirrors and admiring herself, which we know through very direct voiceover.  She claims to be afraid of death, but really she’s afraid of aging, like a withdrawal from a highly addictive drug.

As Cleo moves through Paris, she receives catcall after catcall, but she never pays it any attention.  These catcalls are like birds singing in the distance, they’ve always been there.  Near the halfway point in the film, Cleo sings a beautiful, tragic song, repeating the lines “without you.”  The camera pans slowly around her so that she is framed in darkness, as if she’s not even in the same room.  Then she looks at the camera and continues singing.  In this moment she addresses the gaze of the audience, shone upon her like the gaze of all the men who stare at her on the street.  She’s letting us know that we are in on all of this.

There is power in looking, particularly when the ones being looked at cannot look back, like in a movie theater.  But now the person being looked at breaks the fourth wall and looks back.  Cleo takes the reigns, and the second half of the movie might as well be a different story entirely.

Cleo shuns her white linens and wig in favor of a black dress and a black hat that her friend urged her not to wear because of bad luck.  Up until this point Cleo has been a fearful, superstitious woman, but now she boldly turns her back on the helpless woman she was.  The camera reflects this, spending as much time on other people, strangers as on her.  Cleo sits among others at a cafe or walking down the street, and the camera looks back at these people who have been looking at her.  In the same moment, she is taking the power back, but she’s not elevating herself above those around her.  Instead, she’s just fitting in.

Later she meets a young soldier who makes a slight pass at her like many men have before.  This time she engages him, and they quickly develop a meaningful connection.  He is on leave from the Algerian war (which we have heard snippets about through other people and through the radio), and this experience unifies them because they both have some relationship with death.  Cleo reveals her real name, and he accompanies her to the hospital where she receives good news.  She says she’s no longer afraid.

There are a lot of images of the male gaze in this film.  First, there a bunch of extremely tight shots on Cleo’s face.  Then you have all the men who call out to her.  Cleo complains to her music writing partners that they have made her into a doll and are taking advantage of her.  Then she overhears a group of men discussing paintings titled “woman.”  Next you see her visiting a friend who models nude for a sculpture class.  The camera lingers on her naked body while drifting around the room, allowing you to see the numerous different men and their respective sculptures of her body.  Cleo’s friend, however, tells her that she likes the work and doesn’t feel objectified by it.  There is power in being looked at too.

The film ends with Cleo/Florence sharing the screen with the soldier, Antoine.  Whereas before she occupied the entire screen at times, now she equally shares it with another person.  Before that we see her and Antoine looking at each other, silently and with slight smiles.  Sight is used to bond these two people, equating them as opposed to putting one in a position of power over the other.

So the power of sight/looking is, I believe, what was really plaguing Cleo.  She had grown tired of the treatment of her image and how she came to depend on it.  By the end of the film she has gone from looked at, to looker to somewhere in the middle.  She experiences both sides of the spectrum, and each side isolates her.  First she’s hidden because she’s suffocated by the looks of others (she even mentions feeling suffocated despite being in an incredibly spacious flat), and then she’s hidden by her own dark sunglasses as she seems to glare at the people around her (though it may only feel like a glare because of the sunglasses).  Finally she opens up and lets her be herself, with another person.  For the first time she’s not dealing with people, just a person.

The film is in black and white, and yet it opens in color.  We begin with an overhead shot of a table of cards.  A fortune teller makes Cleo pick the cards, then she reads them, telling her what it means.  The elderly woman correctly predicts that she’ll meet a nice, talkative man, and she also says (not to Cleo but to another man) that she is very sick, doomed even.

When Cleo leaves the room, she looks at herself in the mirror, then she walks down the street where we see her from far away, like through a zoomed in camera lens of a spy across the street.  This suggests the view of someone like God, in this case the audience.  The opening shot in color (and form above) fits this perspective.  I think this sense of power is meant to reflect God, but it shows that even God is paying attention to Cleo, that’s just how damn drawn to her we are.  In this case, the values of the people around her are meant to reflect our own values, so this sequence of shots helps put us in the position of the average person on the street who also stops and stares at Cleo.

So the color in the opening shots shows what the camera is technically capable of.  This film could be shot in color, but Varda chooses to shoot it in black and white.  So I took it to mean that we start in a position of omniscience/power, and then we transition into a more limited but personal position, that of Cleo.  We are receiving a glimpse into her life, meant to feel what she feels.

To further emphasize that we are most definitely in Cleo’s world, there is a prominent sound of a ticking clock in the background, as if to make it clear that time is running out.  Some films take place over years, others seasons, months, days, even hours.  This one, however, takes place in the span of 90 or so minutes, making it clear that Cleo really is running out of time.  She has to figure herself out, and she does.

What I really liked about the quiet ending is how quiet it is, and how all we can hear are the soft footsteps of Florence and Antoine.  They seem to replace the sound of the ticking clock from the beginning of the film.  It shows a change from time running out to the unimportance of time.  It’s very Linklater-esque.  The whole film is, really, as I’m sure Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise was inspired by this film.  His films are about time and moments in general.  If I were to summarize all of Linklater’s work in one sentence, it would be that all we have is the moment.  And at the end of Cleo From 5 to 7, she and Antoine simply share a moment, with Cleo now optimistic that there will be more in the future.

Taking a step back, it’s remarkable how much she changes and grows in only 90 minutes.  It’s a bit absurd, but the story isn’t about her, it’s about women in film in general.  Well, women in media, in general.

Okay, so I took a couple feminist film classes in college, and much of what I’ve written hear is based on what I learned about the idea of the male gaze in those classes.  It’s been a while since I read about this topic, so I may have flat out gotten a few concepts wrong here.  Also, I never watched this film in those classes.  I actually saw this film in a French New Wave film class, and maybe we covered the same ideas in the discussion of this film.  I don’t really know, but what I’ve said here is what I was thinking about during a viewing of this film.

Finally, this film is about death, and my computer died halfway through for no apparent reason.  It was frustrating but I suppose fitting.  But frustrating, mostly.

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