Cléo from 5 to 7

Cléo from 5 to 7 ★★★★½

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it." That's the most famous quote from 1986's Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but to me the film that best captures this idea is one that predates Ferris Bueller by some 24 years: Cléo from 5 to 7.

It's the work of Agnès Varda, a director who channelled her unique brand of humanism into some of the most delightfully random films ever made. She was a director who cared about and was intensely interested in people and their lives, and all of her films that I've seen deal in one way or another with people who happen to inhabit a lifestyle that Varda finds relentlessly intriguing. For instance, Vagabond sees a woman backpacking across the countryside for unknown reasons and encountering all kinds of people along the way, making a different impression on each person she meets, while her documentary The Gleaners & I suggests that Varda herself, in the way she records people living hand-to-mouth, is gleaning insight from gleaning.

Consequently, Cléo from 5 to 7 has Varda written all over it, to the extent that it's such a crystal-clear distillation of her central philosophy that it's a shame it had to come so early in her career. The narrative is intensely focused, comprising an hour and a half in the life of the title character as she waits for the results of a medical test that might determine that she has cancer. Cléo is an up-and-coming jazz singer whom we pick up at a tarot reading. Self-centred and self-pitying, she's convinced she's going to die, and acts as such for the next forty-five minutes or so. She can think and talk of nothing but this, although going into a shop and trying on hats provides momentary diversion. She's trapped in a loveless relationship with a man for whom she feels she has to put on a performance, and she also has a rehearsal with two musicians who are only too pleased to indulge her vanity.

But somewhere around the film's halfway mark, she suddenly has a shocking realisation - her life has been misspent looking at herself, and she's neglected to look outwards at her fellow human beings. For the first time in the film (and probably her life) she becomes keenly aware of the fact that everyone else in Paris has a life, and it's a feeling she can't shake when she meets her friend Dorothée, and one she still can't shake when she walks in the park and strikes up an acquaintance with Antoine, a young soldier who takes an interest in her and offers to accompany her to the hospital to get her test results. At the end of the film, we discover that the whole point of the film isn't whether or not Cléo is going to die but whether she can really find it in herself to lead a fulfilled life with what time she has.

Varda depicts Cléo's burgeoning sense of kinship with the various people she sees about town through a collection of documentary-like montages and snatches of conversation. For Varda, cinema and life are all about what we can learn from other people, and this film encapsulates that near-perfectly, showing that, faced with the possibility of certain death, the least we can do is reach out.

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