Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) Reviews
The real time of the film results in a lot of dead time. This not only fits in with European Art Cinema, but also adds a sense of reality to the film because any hour and a half of a person's life is not going to be entirely filled with action and drama and romance. What I love about Varda's film is that although she only has an hour and a half of real time to transform a character and have her overcome her dramatic conflict, a sense of urgency is never reflected in the film. The film has an unhurried feel to it. Things happen as they may. We linger on seemingly unimportant events like Cleo trying on several hats, or the taxi ride in which Cleo and Angele listen to radio and talk to the driver, or the child playing the toy piano on the street, or the street performer eating frogs. While all of these events do little to advance the narrative, in that they do not provide character motivation or causality, they do provide "slices of life" in Paris, characteristic of European Art Cinema.
And of course, there is the much debated question of what happens to Cleo from 6:30 - 7:00 PM, because the film is titled Cleo from 5 to 7, yet we are denied viewing the events of 6:30 - 7:00. As the audience, we know the film chronicles Cleo in real time, yet we are denied the last half hour of this segment of her life, which we were essentially promised by the title of the film. I'm not going to speculate on what happens to Cleo, because this ending is another aspect of European Cinema in that it is open-ended. It is open for interpretation. No one knows what happens. Not even Agnes Varda.
One salient stylistic feature that struck me was the interspersed use of subjective cinematography. Although Cleo is at times selfish and vain, we feel a connection with her, largely enforced because we are shown her subjective experiences. When Cleo descends the staircase after her tarot reading, there are several shots from her point of view as she walks down the stairs. These shaky shots, combined with the following jump cuts of her face, cause us to feel Cleo's anxiety.
But, just as we are beginning to sympathize with Cleo, we are shown point of view shots of her looking at hats. The camera shifting rapidly from hat to hat is motivated by her eye movement. We are reminded that although Cleo deserves our sympathy, she also deserves our contempt for living a lavish and superficial lifestyle. Similarly, when Cleo sings in her apartment with the pianist and songwriter, we are shown a subjective experience of Cleo. The camera slowly moves to adjust to Cleo framed with only the black wall in the background. Non-diegetic orchestra music accompanies the piano and Cleo's voice. This creates the sensation that Cleo is singing in a studio, or even on a television program, when we know that she is, in reality, standing inside her apartment. Cleo is imagining herself singing elsewhere.
Yet we are once again sympathetic with Cleo when she leaves the cafe, realizing that no one is interested in listening to her song. We feel her isolation and disappointment from her point of view, as people stare strangely and directly (at Cleo) into the camera. The shots of random people on the street are followed by flashes of people Cleo knows posing. These shots must be subjective, because they do not fit within the real-time of the film. There are several other subjective shots, including Cleo making her way through the sculpting class and Cleo watching her friend's short. While it is surreal to watch someone else's subjective experience on screen, it is also realistic, in that it provides us with a glimpse of Cleo's internal world.
They were all on the dumps anyway and the actors didn't seem to be too passionate. A movie like this works only if we care about the characters (especially the lead!), but they all bored me. The main character was a melodramatic mess and each scene dragged on an on. The narrative annoyed me as well. I hated every second involving the people in this movie and the fact that the movie was shot in real time (90 agonizing minutes) made it even worse. The titles in between scenes showing the time and names of the characters in the scene really made things drag. In essence, this movie's over the top flashy style distracted me from the already weak subject matter of the film. Watching this movie was absolute dread for me.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Agnes Varda's 'Cleo from 5 to 7' is the story of Cleo, a relatively unknown pop artist, with a few songs on the radio to her credit, who now faces the very real possibility that she might be suffering from terminal cancer. We follow Cleo in real time, wandering around Paris, waiting for the results of medical tests that will inform her (and the viewer) of her physician's fateful diagnosis.
Varda condenses Cleo's journey of anxiety from the two hours of the title (5 to 7) to an actual hour and a half. We learn from the documentary "Remembrances" (which can be found as part of the DVD extras in the Criterion Collection) that anytime a clock was shown during the film, it would accurately reflect the time elapsed in Cleo's journey.
The film begins with Cleo's visit to a Tarot Card reader who reinforces her belief that indeed the diagnosis will turn out to be cancer. Cleo's bad mood is made even worse when two songwriters (one played by a very young Michel LeGrand) come over and tease her as if she's a ten year old child. Cleo stalks out of her apartment and grows more self-absorbed (she plays one of her own songs on a jukebox in a café, expecting to get noticed by the patrons only to find herself ignored by them).
Varda focuses on Cleo's internal strife as opposed to developing any kind of compelling conflict between the quirky characters she encounters. For most of the film, Cleo is presented as shallow and narcissistic?it's hard to like her at all. Instead, Varda is content to draw us into the sights and sounds of a bustling urban landscape. The film is full of snippets of conversation including long forgotten news items (a gift from Khurschev to JFK is mentioned over the car radio) along with non-actors filmed eating their lunch as the fictional story unfolds before our eyes.
Despite a plethora of vignettes, there's very little story arc in 'Cleo'. For me, the ending was a bit of a cop out. After all the self-hatred, Cleo's mood changes from positively dour to semi-exuberant. All it takes is the companionship of sweet-talking Antoine, the soldier just back from Algeria, who knows how to 'treat her like a lady' coupled with her oncologist's terse pronouncement that two months of chemotherapy will make her into a new woman! How many people do you know who are positively giddy after being told that they're facing two months of chemo? Varda clearly wants all of us to give 'Cleo' a 'pass'. All the shallowness, the self-absorption of this character is nothing more than a portrait of a woman under extreme stress. Cleo is to be forgiven since she's 'not in her right mind'. Wouldn't you be having a 'bad hair day' if you were facing a cancer diagnosis? Varda doesn't want us to judge Cleo's book by its unhinged cover (remember, it's not REALLY her!).
More interesting than the film itself is the documentary "Remembrances". I found it fascinating seeing what the actors look like after all these years. It's hard to believe that the film's stars, Marchand and Bourseiller, had not seen each other since the making of the film back in 1961. You'll also get to see how much has changed (and how much as remained the same) in terms of the Parisian landscape over the years.
Cleo from 5 to 7 often feels more like a documentary than a fictional narrative. I marvel at the cinematography which appears to be way ahead of its time. But clearly 'Cleo' has been placed on an undeserved pedestal in the pantheon of art house fare. Without compelling conflict, Cleo falls back on the internal arc of a stressed out, petulant pop singer. And despite all the nice visuals, I keep asking, why should anyone care?
It all boils down to how you see a thing.