CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (Agnès Varda, 1961)

Written and directed by Agnès Varda, Cléo de 5 à 7 begins in vivid color with a directly overhead shot of two pairs of women’s hands across a table where client Cléo, a singer, and Madame Irma are seated. Cléo’s hands select the tarot cards that Madame Irma turns over and interprets. When the camera alternates between the women’s faces, the color is gone; we see gray and white. When the view shifts back to the cards on the table, though, there is color again: an indication of the unreality of the “reading,” which reflects Cléo’s concern. Madame Irma assures Cléo that the “Death” card indicates a transformative experience, not necessarily, literally, death. After Cléo leaves, by which time the film has entirely passed into black and white, Madame Irma tells her spouse that Cléo will surely die shortly of cancer. But this is the very worry that besets Cléo as she awaits the results of her biopsy; this is why she visited Madame Irma. Madame Irma’s remark to her spouse: Isn’t this Cléo’s subjective projection as she walks down the stairs, which is what we see next? “As long as I’m beautiful,” Cléo thinks to herself—we hear her thought as voiceover—as she looks into a mirror at the foot of the stairs, “I’m alive.”
     Varda’s film proceeds in patches, each of which is captioned with a start and end time. To the usual reading that Cléo becomes increasingly aware of how superficial her life is, let me add this: rather more importantly she becomes increasingly aware of time and its passage, and of life’s transience. In a café, when she is seated with someone who turns out to be her maid, another mirror is behind them, showing us their backs and the patrons in front of them. It is a projection of Cléo’s attempt to hold onto life, which she feels is leaving her behind. During the pair’s taxi ride, images of city streets filled with activity fly by a side window; the windshield reveals another rush of images.
     Here and there we glimpse Cléo selfconsciously filling time, whether by adjusting her makeup or by trying on a hat, the infinite pressure of which we can only imagine.
     Cléo’s “transformative experience” may simply be her anxiety over the medical test results, or it may be her chance encounter with a soldier headed to the Algerian War, or it may be the medical test results themselves, which in a way she chances upon, running into the doctor outside the hospital. Once one becomes acutely aware of time and its passage, there are many “transformative experiences.”
     Varda’s film is touted as being in “real time”—an odd thing, given its subjective nature, its revelation of Cléo’s interiority. (Walking down after leaving Madame Irma, Cléo is shown in quick cuts taking the same step three times, resulting in an impression of her discombobulated state.) Despite the title, the film lasts ninety minutes—an overarching indication that time now for Cléo is a function of her perception of it, and that part of this perception of hers is that time is shorter than heretofore she had imagined it.

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