‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ Contemplates Mortality Through the Female Gaze

“Everyone spoils me, but no one loves me.”

As part of the Gleaning Truths Touring Programme, Agnès Varda’s films will return to cinemas across the country this month, shedding new light on the seminal works of the mother of the French New Wave. Amongst them, her sophomore film – Cléo from 5 to 7, widely regarded as one of Varda’s most popular films. Though visually incumbent with its New Wave siblings, Cléo from 5-7 takes a strikingly feminine approach, and an exploration of mortality, appearance, and identity.

Varda’s film was unusual at the time of its release in that its 90-minute run time documents in real time the life of Cléo Victoire, a famous and very beautiful singer, from the hours of 5 to 7pm. The film begins with a tarot reading that betrays a sinister outlook on Cléo’s life; she is awaiting the results of a test by her doctor that will confirm if she is terminally ill with cancer, something which troubles her deeply. Accompanied by her well-meaning but superstitious maid, Angéle, Cléo tries to pass the time by running errands and absorbing herself in drinking coffee and hat shopping. Later, her unnamed lover visits her apartment, but spares no thought for Cléo’s affairs, which she hides from him on Angéle’s advice, as men supposedly hate weakness in a woman. However, Cléo is very aware of her dissatisfaction in her relationship with the man, admitting that she gives too much to men for little in return – he is only a momentary lover who has no serious time for her.

In fact, Cléo’s encounters with men in the film all provide a self-aware perspective on men’s behaviour – early in the film, a man in a passing car leers at Cléo, making a grab for her hand which she quickly snatches away. When Cléo suggests to her lover at the apartment that she might be unwell, he dismisses her, claiming that “your beauty is your health.” Through his naiveté it becomes clearer at this point that though Cléo is obviously very talented and attractive, this does not guarantee her health nor her happiness. Cléo’s own fear of mortality is not soothed by the fact that everyone seems to take her for granted, not taking her ailments seriously. When her pianist and songwriter friends try to cheer her up with a tasteless joke, then, in innocence, give her a very sombre new song to rehearse, Cléo is overcome with depression and fear.

The theme of existentialism is not one uncommon to French New Wave films, although it is perhaps more unusual to be dedicating such time to the exploration of the female psyche, especially one appearing at first so frivolous as Cléo. Though it would be easy to stereotype Cléo as overly dramatic like the men in the film, the film is increasingly empathetic of her plight. It’s interesting to consider that the film might feel a little slow – agonisingly so at times – but it is no slower than the pace of our own lives. We are so used to having things cut down for time, such as the seemingly unimportant journeys between locations, that having to accompany our protagonist in every moment of her routine draws us very close to Cléo and increases our investment in the outcome of her story. Two hours can feel like an eternity when you’re waiting to find out something that could change the course of your life forever; a feeling that Varda captures with a great effectivity. Cléo’s anxiety is further aggravated by the continuing mention of bad omens by her maid, and an obesession with mirrors and her own appearance, and the tragedies of the Algerian war looming over France.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is a story that is still unexpectedly relevant for young people, and will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come for those who struggle with their own sense of identity and mortality in a technology and fame-obsessed society that frequently forgets to consider the humanity of others. In the film’s final moments a chance meeting, with a soldier facing his own mortality before being shipped off to the Algerian war, provides Cléo with both a newfound courage, and an unexpected friend with whom to face the results of her test. Cléo is provided with a wide-eyed new perspective on life; one that will stick with the viewer long after the credits roll.

by Megan Wilson

Megan is a northerner currently studying film in London. She likes cats, old musicals, and films about lesbians who don’t die. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Twitter: @bertmacklln

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