Cléo from 5 to 7

Cléo from 5 to 7 ★★★★★

Coming almost twenty years after the end of Nazi occupation in France and the right to vote was granted to French women, Cléo From 5 to 7 finds France in a new kind of lethargic destruction, unlike the dire circumstances it faced in World War Two. By 1962, France neared the end of a different war, one where it was the aggressor. 

The Algerian War, perpetrated by France’s bourgeois, dying colonial government to maintain control over a native uprising in one of its last colonies, the country of Algeria, was now failing for the French and they were itching to make a deal with the newly “independent” Algerian state. Meanwhile, outside of France—as is so economically covered in the woman taxi driver’s radio news that Cléo (Corinne Marchand) and Angèle (Dominique Davray) listen to—is at its own near-annihilation, less than a year out from the Cuban missile crisis and uncomfortably in the center of the Cold War. The French New Wave, the most important cinematic movement in French cinema, was just started by members of the French film journal Cahiers Du Cinema, putting down their pens and grabbing a camera. Some members of the “Left Bank,” who were more artistically-minded (less movie-crazed) filmmakers such as Alan Resnais and Cléo’s director, Agnès Varda, were also an important part of the New Wave.

Agnès Varda paradoxically casts Cléo as both an outsider and surrogate for France in 1962. Consistently terrified of her mortality, in the evening the film takes place Cléo is concerned with getting a phone call from her doctor. She is almost convinced the doctor will tell her she has cancer. Everything leads her to that conclusion: the fortune teller at the beginning of the film alludes to death ahead, the songs of despair and decay that her songwriters bring her trigger her fears, the broken mirror after Cléo watches the old silent film is a bad omen and the general careless mood of France in 1962 lives in the hidden stench of death.

The coffee shop, the sculpture classes, and the parks of bourgeois Paris that Cléo visits are all faced with some sort of cancerous air. Every person Cléo encounters acts as if they live in a world with terminal cancer. If they aren’t sardonic about life, they’re blissfully ignorant. If they aren’t complaining about the war in Algeria, they’re concerned with their own minuscule worries. Death surrounds France in toxic but seemingly unnoticed or ignored magnitudes. (By the way, this is an amazing metaphor for how war impacts—of doesn’t impact—the middle class of a country. Kudos to Cléo.) 

Cléo becomes antagonistic to the whole of her society because she cares about her mortality. As Paris is expertly captured through Cléo’s perspective (oftentimes literally) and the windows of cars that go by, Varda arranges through her documentary form a sort of opposing duel between Cléo and France. Cléo is superstitious and sensitive while France—less than two decades out from enemy occupation, suffering from massive economic challenges, losing its colonial territories—protects itself with apathy and condescension. In a much broader sense, she’s a woman in a man’s careless world, much like Agnès is a woman in a “man’s medium,” film. (It’s important to note her legacy as the only woman ever grouped among the French New Wave filmmakers.) Much like Jean-Luc Godard does with his New Wave powerhouse, Breathless, Varda concerns Cléo with the carelessness of masculine cool or the cost of humanity in the modernity that emerges after World War Two.

This critique in itself is as cynical as France was at this time. But there is more to it. Consider the satirical silent film Cléo and her friends see at the movie theater. The whole gag of the silent film, cemented especially by its inclusion of iconoclast icons Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, is how foolishly simple it is. All the man had to do in the film was take his sunglasses off and life would be happy again. Here again, the issue of perspective—societally and personally—arises. The silent film’s conclusion is simple and neat, but it satisfies even the dreading Cléo. Still, once outside the mirror from her friend’s purse breaks and Cléo’s unhappiness returns. It seems as though Varda has a handle on the problem but not the nifty solution that the silent film within Cléo proposes.

This is where the final section comes. Here Cléo meets a soldier soon to return to the war in Algeria, Antoine (Antoine Boursellier). His relationship with Cléo, unashamedly sweet and gentle, is the kind of care Varda advocates for in the end. Opposite to the cantankerous, careless, or bitter mode that the Parisians of the film subscribe to, Cléo and Antoine demonstrate a way of love often unfound in the post-modern world. In the film’s conclusion, Cléo learns that she will be cured. And, as the film follows Cléo and Antoine walking forward, it’s unclear how that registers with them. What is the world if it’s not doomed to end? What are France’s values if it isn’t in a cancerous state? What if the world survives decades or even centuries after this post-modern period? What’s left? 

While Varda answers the question of how to care in a world bent on destruction, she leaves the answer of how to get beyond that world to us. After all, Varda’s self-conscious editing, documentary compositions and sounds, and intelligent capture of France’s spirit in 1962 can only do so much.

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