Varda and Cléo

August 4, 2018 § Leave a comment

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It’s strange to see Agnès Varda now described as ‘the matriarch of the New Wave’, when for decades her name was regularly left off the New-Wave rollcall. She’s a matriarch only after the event, now that, aged 90, she has survived all but one of those male directors who were her peers and her friends, this being Jean-Luc Godard. It’s good to see her celebrated, her feminism and stature acknowledged.
Yet, despite the revivals of her work, most recently a BFI retrospective and currently a season at various cinemas in London and beyond, I feel that Varda is still denied her due. Perhaps because her films have been less available than the work of those peers and friends, but maybe also because she is pigeonholed as a grande dame who serves as an example to women film-makers. Let her example continue to flourish, but let her films be assessed by a wider measure, singly and as a body of work that ranks among the highest. Cléo from 5 to 7 is proof enough.
Cléo was made in 1961 (not 1962). The date is important for a film that bursts with life while being shaped and structured by precision of time as well as place.
It begins in colour, sombre in an ill-lit curtained space and in close-up that excludes everything except hands and the shuffling or dealing of Tarot cards. Nine cards have to be chosen, three threes representing past, present and future. The predictions contain hope but also hint at doom. When the frame opens out to reveal the two speakers, in an unusual reversal everything shifts to monochrome and remains so for the rest of the film. So accurate has been the Tarot reader’s account of Cléo’s past and present that what’s relayed from the future floods her with despair.
In France, from 5 to 7 is a knowing reference to afternoon sexual assignations. But for Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a young pop singer narcissistically enamoured of her own good looks, these two hours represent the time left until a phone call gives her the result of a medical test that could mean cancer. Before leaving the Tarot reader’s building she seeks consolation in her reflection, multiply echoed in facing mirrors. She speaks to it, with the assurance that beauty will protect her from death.
There are more mirrors and more of Cléo’s temperament: obsessive superstition, capriciousness, petulance, uncontrollable weeping in a café, tantrums at home when the musicians turn up with new tunes (Michel Legrand on the piano). ‘You treat me as if I’m an idiot or a doll, she rages. ‘Don’t tell them you’re ill. Men don’t like it’, advises Angèle, her assistant/companion. She complies, as she has done with her lover, a wealthy and much older man who arrives on a fleeting visit, their affection genuine but passionless, born of mutual convenience. At odds with herself and needing to fill that empty waiting time, she changes into a black dress and discards her elaborately coiffed wig before setting off into the city again, this time alone.
While reduced by ellipsis to a 90-minute duration, the film effectively takes us on Cléo’s journey in real time. To start with it’s aimless, a dérive on foot, by taxi, in her friend Dorothée’s bumpily driven car…. You can plot it with topographical precision (indeed, a book that maps it has already been published). This is a documentary inhabited by a fiction. Streets and parks and squares are recognisable and filled with extraordinary life: shops, faces, gestures, vehicles, the randomness of passers-by and café tables, crowds gathered around street performers, strangest of all a man who makes a show of swallowing live frogs. At this spectacle Cléo recoils, elsewhere she’s a restless and unmoved observer, looking and looked at, repeatedly catching fragments of conversation that intimate sundry stories, ending or beginning, or somewhere in the middle.
‘Today everything amazes me’, she’ll say before the day is out.
This must be the richest representation of Paris in a fiction film, syncopating the rhythms and pulse of a great city with the mood of its main character. We see it through her eyes and gradually we see her notice what she sees, finding what she didn’t know she was looking for. Anyone who has ever anticipated a cancer diagnosis would surely recognise that welter of fast-changing emotions, if not their particularity: dread and anxiety, elation, new-found alertness, the sense of life’s urgency. But Varda is telling us how much we all can gain by really looking, and, self-referentially, how cinema prompts us.
Cléo started out on the right bank, then crossed the Pont Neuf, veering into the Latin Quarter. Now alone, she heads towards a sculpture workshop where Dorothée does life modelling and her friend’s sunny company cheers her. From there they drive to Dorothée’s boyfriend, a projectionist. To their delight, he shows them a silent short full of comic knockabout. This film within a film stars Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina alongside Sami Frey and Eddie Constantine. It’s a neat little parable about seeing, reaching its conclusion as Godard whips off the dark glasses that have caused him to misinterpret Anna’s misadventure as something worse.
From 5 to 7: the film’s title ushers us into a realm of time that is finite, and text on the screen divides it into timed chapters. Its setting is Paris on the longest day of the year, June 21. For all that light, hitherto we’ve watched Cléo pass through ominous spaces of darkness: corridors, under a bridge, through a tunnel. Shadows seem to clear with her smile on hearing the word Montsouris; ‘It’s like saying the English word ‘Cheese’ she remarks and, on a whim, takes a taxi to Montsouris Park. She makes a joyous entrance at the top of high steps, a wide bright sky above her. Meanwhile, on an otherwise quiet soundtrack, Michel Legrand’s music reaches a crescendo.
A few years ago I set out with a friend from her flat in Montmartre to find the exact spot in Montsouris Park where Cléo has an awkwardly begun but happy encounter with a stranger: a rustic little bridge above a miniature waterfall. It took us some time wandering up and down steps and among wooded slopes, but we got there in the end, and everything was as in the film. There’s something very satisfying about that parallelism of entering the real space of a film made many years before.
There’s no trite resolution in Cléo’s meeting with Antoine. Its conversation moves within the light and shade either side of that little bridge. Cléo is already calm, already more open than the young woman she was on the other bank of the Seine. She tells Antoine about her looming diagnosis and he suggests they go together to the hospital instead of phoning. It turns out he’s a soldier on the last hours of leave before returning to Algeria, where he might die ‘for nothing’, as indeed did many French conscripts. She suggests a taxi, he observes that the bus is more fun, and so they travel towards the Salpêtrière, which isn’t far.
Love enters into this conversation, a very tentative beginning.
Varda filmed Cléo in the last summer of the Algerian war. It ended in March 1962, just in time to avoid disappointment for three of us from my school who were going on an exchange to Versailles and Paris in July. We’d been told cancellation was likely and the fate of our trip was our only concern amid those fatal uncertainties between war and peace. So the Paris streets of 1961 in Cléo have given definition to my recall of the following summer. They have entered my memory.
I really love this film. It’s about a young woman’s route to self-possession and courage. It’s about the vitality of a great city at a precise point in its history. It’s about time and the fragility of life, about the nature of cinema and its relation to the world. I never tire of it.
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