“You shouldn’t use the word ‘despair'”
It’s crazy to think that Cléo de 5 à 7 [Cleo from 5 to 7] was just the second feature length fictional narrative French auteur Agnès Varda ever made. The maturity in minimal storytelling, singular visual style, and existential metaphor surrounding death’s value that spans classes are stunning to behold. While following Cléo (Corinne Marchand) in virtual real time for an hour and a half as she distracts herself with shopping and work before calling her doctor for potentially devastating test results, we pass by a severe nation caught in the midst of war uninterested in frivolity. The juxtaposition is therefore a profound one since frivolity pays Cléo’s bills and is exactly what she craves as the albatross of cancer looms precariously above her thus far charmed existence.
Cléo is a spoiled brat. Her friends call her such, she does nothing to refute them, and probably would even agree if put on the spot. This isn’t to say she’s a bad person nor uninteresting, it’s merely to turn the mirror on society’s faceless hoard who go on in times of upheaval as if nothing is wrong. She literally puts one of her songs on at a cafe—being a semi-famous vocalist with a name the hat store clerk recognizes—and laments how nobody listened because they were too busy with their own lives and current events. She turns her nose up at a female cab driver admitting to standing up to a mugger and is annoyed by art students protesting the Algerian War in the streets.
Beauty makes her feel alive and she tries to believe that’s enough when the fear of mortality rears its head. This isn’t surprising considering the era of gender roles causing every single man Cléo meets until the charmingly down-to-earth solider-on-leave Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) to dismiss her ailment as hysterics. Even her agent/manager/friend Angèle (Dominique Davray) wants to diminish the stakes by constantly pushing her to forget about it or think happy thoughts while avoiding all superstitious activities Tuesdays bring. Rather than be a consoling shoulder she practices the art of deflection and distraction to keep her golden goose on task. You have to feel sorry for Cléo despite her being somewhat unlikeable because it’s obvious she doesn’t have a choice. Her fame still isn’t enough to earn respect.
Here enters the existential crisis brought on by foreboding tarot cards—inexplicably shown in color with an overhead vantage point when the rest of the film (including reaction shots to the fortune teller’s table) is black and white. Has she done anything worthwhile? Will anyone miss her? Her lover (José Luis de Vilallonga) pencils in quick kisses like business meetings, her close friend (Renée Duchateau‘s sculpture model) hardly ever sees her, and she hyperbolically proclaims songs won’t last. She’s walking Paris to her inevitable demise as if in a trance and it’s been for nothing. You cannot witness her disappointment at this reality without also seeing it amplified in Antoine’s eyes once he explains how his fellow soldiers are fighting without reason.
The film becomes a document of Paris in the 50s and 60s during this trying time of protests, war, death, and the innocent cluelessness towards it all. If we cannot bring ourselves to empathize with the soldier off to fight a battle his country shouldn’t be waging, maybe we can sympathize with a member of the elite struggling to survive her own self-doubt. In the end we learn she wants what we all want: someone to actually be there for her as more than a “yes man” like Angèle or a mildly distracted friend in Duchateau. Everyone she holds dear is selfish to a fault—and possibly more vain than she—transforming her fears into personal anecdotes or ignoring them altogether to speak about their own current insecurities.
The only person who doesn’t do this is the one person we’d grant a reprieve to do so: Antoine. Here’s a man about to ship off after a leave he accomplished nothing with that’s resigned himself to his fate. All he wants is to chat up Cléo and make a human connection (and maybe snag a photo to show the guys he has a beautiful girl waiting for him). But when he finds out her predicament and her terror at the prospect of death, he focuses completely on her. He volunteers to walk her to the hospital so she can hear the news in person. He’s genuinely compassionate as opposed to the countless pigs stopping her previously for no other reason than to get in her pants.
There’s synergy in their meeting as two ticking clocks counting down faster than everyone else. He gives her what she’s been searching for all day, but not quite in the way she thought. Her vanity craved attention and praise, but what she really wanted was an ear and undivided attention to simply exist outside of the circus her life constructed around her. To the world she’s a voice and looks, but to Antoine she’s a friend and fellow human being. The same should be said for he and the boys off to fight for land they’d never see otherwise and which isn’t theirs. It’s funny because had he been in uniform and involved in the protest earlier, she’d have dismissed him in frustrated disgust.
It’s all about context and the tiny moments we cannot anticipate. Varda gets this and ensures Cléo’s journey is simply a random sojourn around the city without expectation. Her documentary style of embracing obstacles and reflections—so many mirrors and windows are utilized to unforgettably spectacular effect—keeps us on the ground to be entranced by the faces of those she passes as authentic depictions of the era and not actors putting on airs. The film’s dense with detail and ready to burst at the seams of its one sentence plot to invite multiple viewings and discussions around its pieces. There’s levity (Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina taking focus while engaged in a silent short vignette), drama, and most importantly the resonate beauty of being alive.