Cléo de 5 à 7
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Why Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 is not considered a classic of the French New Wave on the order of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Godard’s Breathless is a complete mystery. Well, I tell I a lie. I can’t say for sure why, but I have a suspicion that a little bit of French male chauvinism might be involved. First of all and most obviously, Cleo is a film about a woman dealing with a woman’s problems directed by a woman. It’s not a touching coming of age story or a hip riff on the crime movie, it’s two hours in the life of a woman waiting for test results from her doctor. On paper, it doesn’t make for thrilling drama and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for audience identification. On the screen, however, with Varda’s deft documentary-style direction and Corrine Marchand’s naïve, understated performance, it becomes a fascinating character study. Secondly, Varda was never involved as a critic or writer for Cahiers du Cinema the way so many of the other directors of the New Wave were. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette were all at one time writers for the iconoclastic French film journal. Varda, a still photographer by trade, belongs more to the esoteric, so-called “Left Bank” of the New Wave — filmmakers such as Bresson, Demy, and Melville — whose work has only recently begun to receive the popular recognition and critical re-evaluation that instant hits by the Cahiers filmmakers never had to worry about.
The title of the film gives away the gimmick of the film — we’re going to watch this woman in real time for two hours. We’ll watch her shop, sit in a café, talk to a few friends, and really not much else. A quick glance at the running time (90 minutes) should be your first clue that maybe there’s something else going on. Any screenwriter (or for that matter, anyone who’s watched 24) can tell you that even when you purport to tell a story in “real-time,” you have to make concessions to dramatic expectations. Indeed, the film begins in real time, even providing what might be called “chapter headings” that break up the on-screen action into chunks of a few minutes each. These chapter headings eventually diminish and disappear toward the end of the film. At first blush, they seem to be fairly pointless and, as I mentioned, gimmicky. Then you begin to think about Cleo’s situation. She’s waiting for test results from her doctor — and not just tests for strep throat. She’s waiting for tests to see if she has cancer and how far along it may have developed. The film is obsessed by time because Cleo is obsessed by time. She is watching the clock’s every turn until she finds out her fate. Each passing minute reminds her of how little she may have left to live. This is never really addressed in the dialogue of the film — to do so would be far too heavy-handed and Varda, as a director, has a very light touch. The reason why the chapter headings vanish toward the end of the film is simple, Cleo finally runs into someone who can take her mind off her troubles, if only for a few minutes. The ending of the film is best left unmentioned for those who haven’t seen it to discover on their own.
The film features a score (and a couple of great songs) by Michel Legrand who would go on to work with Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Legrand also appears in the film as Cleo’s songwriter and there are appearances by Godard and his muse Anna Karina.
I’m ashamed to admit that even though I consider myself an avid fan of French cinema, I had never even heard about this film until a couple of years ago. Although it’s partly my own ignorance that kept me from discovering this film (which I think is a lot better than The 400 Blows), I also blame the film establishment that ignores contributions by female directors. Even in a recent Movie Maker magazine article on the influence of the French New Wave on independent filmmaking, Varda’s name is nowhere to be found. It’s a little satisfying to see now that the New Wave is making a comeback of sorts with acclaimed recent films by Chabrol, Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer hitting these shores, Agnes Varda’s little DV documentary on scavengers, The Gleaners and I, has been the most acclaimed of the bunch.