A woman, after hearing a rather grim tarot reading from a frizzy-haired soothsayer, emerges out of the room terribly upset. She descends down the staircase, beset with anxiety. But before she leaves, she checks herself in the mirror, ruminating “When you’re beautiful, you’re more alive than many others’. Wiping her tears away, she swept out into the glorious Parisian daylight. This is Cléo, a minor French chanteuse with three popular songs under her belt, and she’s possibly dying. Throughout the film’s entire course in pseudo-real time, hence from 5 to 7, we accompany her as she waits for the test result of her medical biopsy of her stomach cancer. What purports to be a documentary at the onset, the camera following this woman’s foray into a personal odyssey, turns into a luminous, quietly touching, subtly intellectual cine-essay about the transience of life, and inevitability of death.
If that sounds a bit depressing, don’t fret. It’s not all gloom-and-doom. In fact, this beautifully designed central conceit ironically breathes life to Agnès Varda’s masterful work, where a sense of foreboding and uncertainty hangs resolutely for the entire film, making everything the heroine’s wilful actions attain a gravity to them. At the exterior, she’s frivolous, pretty and chic and she spends the first half of the film engaging in capricious preoccupations – shopping for hats, being pampered by her PA, and cavorting with her distant lover. But after an achingly painful breakdown with a Michel Legrand-penned song (Legrand appears as the pianist), she sheds off this spoilt façade sans hair-wig and feathery frock, breaking free from the world of pretence and meaninglessness. What seems to be frivolity turns out to be a front, a cover-up to mask an emotionally shattered being faced with a cold, bitter truth of mortality. She soon wanders around the streets of Paris, seeking for some shred of meaning to her own existence.
Corinne Marchand gives a graciously nuanced performance as Cléo. In a superlative sequence in the Bois-de-Bolougne park, she starts strutting around the stairs as though in a musical in a self-plea for distraction and then subsequently descends into a melancholic self-pity. Nevertheless, there’s a lightness of touch in Varda’s approach, as she introduces a promise of romance, bringing vivacity to the final proceedings. Consider it whatever you want, may it be plot contrivance or a cinematic desperation to uplift things up, Varda handles the existential identities between Cléo and Antoine, the soldier she meets at the park, with a quiet dignity, allowing the two characters to share an unfettered emotional and psychological candour. The result is magnetic. This pre-empts Richard Linklater’s superb Before Sunset and Before Sunrise double-act, with a brief encounter that turns into something relevant. For the first time in Cléo from 5 to 7, we observe the heroine getting calm, free from anxiety.
This are feminist tones to the film, and only more remarkable since the magnitude of the French New Wave is ruled by masculinity – boys with guns, rebels of society, lovers on quarrel. Cléo from 5 to 7 is very much a nouvelle vague film, aware of its cinematic medium, as Varda uses jump-cuts throughout the film, elaborate camera set-ups, soft-focus lens during intimate moments, and even juxtaposes the scenes of tarot-reading in colour with the entirely black-and-white shots. She manipulates time, space and emotions here – and ultimately debunking the very idea established by the New Wave movement, that cinema verité is as pretentious as any other movements. Varda argues the cinema is, and will always be, cinema – open to manipulation of all sorts, an artist’s plaything, a beautiful pretender emulating life but shall never achieve such ambition. She creates a vision of real-time life, but she soon puts it to hiatus before the final half-hour, with a sudden cut of Cléo and Antoine staring into each other’s eyes, an inspired final shot that rivals François Truffaut’s freeze-frame of Antoine Doinel in Les Quatre Cents Coups, reminding us that this is reel-time she’s fashioning. Life is more complex than that. The ending also suggests various things, whether Cléo and Antoine will blossom into a romantic relationship or both of them will soon share a status quo, that she’s indeed dying and that he’s being sent to fight in a war in Algeria, thus his impending death. Nonetheless, from first frame to the last, Varda firmly contends that awareness and acceptance of death only makes life much sweeter to live.
As profound and technically daring as any incendiary works of the 1960s French New Wave. Varda crafts a quietly thoughtful yet compelling portrait of femininity in an era dominated by the boys of the nouvelle vague. This belongs to a higher order of sophisticated filmmaking, which arguably ranks alongside Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups.