Cleo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)
There is no mental agony quite like waiting for a diagnosis. The relief that comes from good news is scarcely worth the nightmarish speculation, the sense of total doom. “Waiting to hear back on the results” is one of those experiences that turns just about anyone into a totally anxious wreck.
Agnès Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 covers two hours in the life of a woman waiting to hear back on the results of a stomach biopsy. In one sense, the film covers very little. We see Cleo (Corinne Marchand) do about as much as one can in two hours when they are trying to distract themselves. And yet by the end I felt such an affinity and closeness for her, and all her foibles and faults that she displays, because this is one of the most recognizably human of movies that I’ve ever seen. We don’t see Cleo do much, but if you’ve ever eavesdropped on a interesting conversation, well, you can learn quite a bit without much happening.
The film is essentially an act of eavesdropping. We learn about Cleo in little chunks of time that the film marks off as chapters. It opens with her visiting a fortune teller, and the cards are decidedly not in her favor. Cleo begins to weep. She is convinced she has stomach cancer and that her doctor is simply going to confirm her doom in two hours. There is a splendidly observed moment where the fortune teller sternly asks Cleo not to show any despair in front of other customers, lest they be put off and cost her business. Cleo puts on a stone face until she gets downstairs where she takes solace in her reflection in the mirror. When you’re worried, you take any distractions you can get. Vanity doesn’t soothe her for long. She meets with her assistant Angèle (who recommended the fortune teller) at a cafe and breaks down sobbing again. The film is full of brief spans of time that expose human multitudes. In 90 minutes, director Agnès Varda covers more mental and emotional territory than films twice its length, all without being about much more than waiting for bad news.
It’s intoxicating how deftly this movie unfolds. A little at a time, we learn more and more about Cleo and the world she inhabits. Cleo is a singer. She’s not quite a pop star, but her songs are on jukeboxes and the radio and people turn their heads when they see her, perhaps not recognizing her but certainly thinking they’ve seen her from somewhere. She has a boyfriend who she no longer seems to sleep with or even talk with anymore. She meets with several friends over the course of the film. Varda frequently plunges into the minds of the characters in internal monologues, revealing the truths they wouldn’t around one another. Angèle is devoted to Cleo but privately dismissive of her feelings. Cleo is far more vulnerable than she wants to let on, not miserable but certainly not happy, even outside of the whole “waiting on a potential cancer diagnosis” thing.
Other members of her circle include her songwriters, two bespectacled fellows who enjoy her company, and she theirs. However, they don’t take her seriously as a person or an artist and she belittles their writing when it doesn’t pass her muster. Their moments together reveal the misunderstandings that arise from not being able to speak openly with someone. She meets them for a rehearsal session, and while singing one song she falls into a reverie. The song is as despairing as she is, and she ends up storming out of her apartment, deeply unsettled, dismissing the song harshly, as one of the writers calls her a spoiled brat.
Cleo From 5 to 7 is episodic on its face (the film consists of 10 chapters, each counting down to her conversation with her doctor at 7 pm). It defies conventional plot synopsis, because the plot’s all in the title. The film’s magic lies in Varda’s eye for constructing scenes that feel completely spontaneous and alive. Her camera constantly wanders during scenes, catching smatterings of conversations around Cleo that we never hear to their end, and other times blocking out everything except Cleo’s face and the voice within her heard. That rings true to me; when something is overwhelmingly worrying, sometimes all you notice are your surroundings and sometimes all you notice is your own mind.
Varda also paces the film beautifully. Scenes flow naturally into one another, following only the path of however Cleo feels at that moment. When she storms out of her rehearsal, she seeks out an old friend named Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) who works as a figure model for a sculpting class. The film doesn’t simply run from place to place; it saunters. It takes in the surroundings. It notices architecture, interesting faces, pauses in conversations. Cleo walks in on Dorothée posing nude and is embarrassed; Dorothée couldn’t care less. Later, they talk about Cleo’s embarrassment and their differing views on modesty. The conversation feels totally natural, flowing out from the events, which Varda transitions to so smoothly from what came before. Nothing in the film feels forced or contrived.
Early on it feels like Cleo’s impending diagnosis is going to be a MacGuffin- an arbitrary device that moves the plot forward. But by the end of the film, I realized that Varda was onto something much more insightful. We don’t learn much about Cleo biographically. We don’ learn all her faults and merits, but we get a sense of her as a person at a fundamental level: flawed, confused, desperate for happiness and someone to communicate deeply with. We know her the way you can sometimes connect deeply with a stranger in one conversation. Corinne Marchad’s performance is essential. She is remarkably consistent in conveying that tone, subtly altering and coloring every interaction we have with Cleo. Circumstances can alter perception. She doesn’t simply play a person consumed with worry; her fears bubble under every scene, sometimes bursting out loud but usually simmering quietly, always there but not always the most prominent thing in the scene.
Cleo From 5 to 7 is one of the very best films I’ve seen out of the French New Wave. It has the freshness and energy of films like Breathless and Jules and Jim, and yet I think I liked it even more than those films. It has an energy, a curiosity about its world, and a sense of observation all its own. Its scenes buzz with the frazzled jumble of emotions that come with anxiety. Moments of calm flow seamlessly like soothing melodies. Every scene contributes something. Not a moment feels wasted. At the start of the film, Cleo is all-consumed with fear of her diagnosis. When it finally comes at the end, she realizes that, like most things in life, it’s just another moment.
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
One thing I love about Dario Argento films: their stories slot easily into other genres. He then drags them into horror, kicking and screaming with buckets of thick, red blood. Suspiria is essentially a gothic fairy tale, for example. It was inspired by tall tales that the grandmother of co-writer Daria Nocolodi told her as a child. The result is a film that has the trappings of something comfortably familiar, told through set pieces of operatic violence.
Deep Red is a whodunit in its heart. The plot and story beats aren’t too far removed from Agatha Christie. But in Christie novels, murders are simply plot devices. The likes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are unflappable in the face of death. Murders are an excuse for them to showcase their brilliance at solving them. But when the killings happen in Deep Red, they aren’t a means to advance the plot; they are Argento’s arias, thrusting violence and horror to the forefront, forcing both the audience and the film’s obligatory amateur investigators to recoil from the carnage.
Deep Red opens with a murder and segues into another soon thereafter. In between, we meet a psychic named Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), who gives a lecture in Turin about her abilities and initially wows the audience by pointing to a random man and correctly saying that he is fiddling with his keys. She is then overcome with a vision of murder and begins to panic. Later, she is murdered in her apartment by an unknown assailant.
Helga’s murder is witnessed by a pianist named Marcus (David Hemmings), who runs to investigate and finds her dead, and the assailant fleeing the scene, wearing a distinct leather raincoat. He becomes obsessed with investigating the case himself, teaming up with a journalist named Gianna (Nicolodi, who starred in five Argento films in addition to co-writing Suspiria with him). Their relationship is strained but playful. Marcus voices some dismissive sexism to Gianna, which seems rooted in his own self-consciousness about masculinity. In response, Gianna challenges him to arm wrestling, beats him, and he complains that she cheated.
Scenes like that aren’t simply Argento awkwardly addressing feminism and masculinity; as Deep Red unfolds almost every scene hints toward answers without giving anything away. At the end of the film, I realized that the answers to the plot’s questions were all laid out before me, in suggestion, in the mise en scène, in the character’s writing. There is a crucial scene where Marcus has a conversation with his best friend Carlo, also a pianist, but far less successful. Carlo is drunk, and they talk across opposite sides of a huge Roman statue. The dialogue, the conditions in which it is spoken, and even the statue itself all play a part in piecing together the mystery, even though none of that is spelled out in the scene.
All of this is simply to say that as a murder mystery, Deep Red works splendidly, which means that as horror, it works splendidly, because horror is always best, the scares more resonant, when it’s motivated by something more than simply scaring you.
Dario Argento is a master of grisly, horrifically beautiful horror set pieces. The violence in this film is bloody, yes, but as always with Argento there’s a choreography to it. I think (and this is not simply the setting of Suspiria talking) that Argento films would translate easily into ballet without becoming comical. When the killer strikes in Deep Red, there’s a sense that everything in the frame is exactly where Argento wants it, but the scenes also never lack for energy or chaos.
Deep Red plunges into its mystery head on, and much of the fun is in the surroundings, the sets, and the characters Marcus runs into along the way. Unlike an Agatha Christie novel, however, Marcus often seems deep in over his head, needing Gianna on more than one occasion to survive, never mind solve the murders. He’s an unusually well-rounded horror protagonist. He’s not entirely likeable, but his flaws are recognizably human, and Argento builds the case he’s pursuing into such an intoxicating fever that we understand why he keep pursuing it even after the killer whispers a promise to kill him through a closed door. Terrified, he calls Gianna for help. “There’s someone in the house, absolutely trying to kill me, you know?” he says, his voice rising in alarm.
As a horror fan, Deep Red was a delight, a prime example of the bloody delights of both giallo and whodunits. But Argento’s direction will also demand future viewings, just to study the visuals and admire the craft. It’s damn good entertainment, yes, but like a great painting there is something to admire on every inch of the frame.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
I’ve never liked assigning human emotions to animals. Animals have worlds and a perspective that is all their own. One of the joys of growing up with both dogs and cats is appreciating what they both bring to the table. Cats are unpredictable and delightfully odd. Dogs are abjectly sincere. Either way, there’s a purity to how animals express themselves, one that movies often muddle. The beauty of Au Hasard Balthazar, its point of focus that sets its tone and makes it so compelling, is that it views the world through the eyes of an animal, and never once tries to humanize it. Balthazar the donkey goes through his life with the simple nobility of an animal that has no real control over its destiny.
Au Hasard Balthazar opens with the music of Franz Schubert over the opening credits, cheekily interrupted by the braying of a donkey. In the opening scene, two children plead with their father to let them adopt a baby donkey. In the following scene, they baptize him, mimicking, with total earnestness, the baptism rites of the Church. Already I think I was under Bresson’s spell; the film’s spareness and simplicity invite speculation over symbolism. Is a scene of a donkey being baptized a gentle jab at the Church? Is it a statement about the innate innocence of animals? I think I prefer to take it at face value: it’s the sort of thing children would do with a new pet with total conviction.
Conviction pulses through this film. Balthazar grows up and his ownership changes hands repeatedly. The children who adopt him give him to friend, a girl named Marie. Her father is a farmer, a decent man with monumental pride that threatens to undo him when neighbors accuse him of cheating them out of their money. A young man named Gerard, who is infatuated with Marie in the worst sense, stops by her homes sometimes and beats Balthazar sadistically. Needing money, Marie’s father sells the donkey to Gerard’s mother. Eventually, Gerard’s mistreatment of Balthazar causes the animal to go catatonic. On the verge of being put down, a local drunkard named Arnold seems to take pity on Balthazar and takes him off their hands, nursing him back to health.
These story beats don’t follow a plot. They follow the path of Balthazar. The story consists of little revelations of these characters, in how they treat an innocent animal, and in how they treat one another. Everyone in the film is flawed. Gerard is diabolical; he is the one character who treats the donkey with total contempt. He also sexually assaults Marie and savagely beats Arnold. When police visit his mother asking about a murder they think he might have witnessed, she assumes he committed it and tells him to flee the country.
The question, then: why is Balthazar the film’s eyes and ears? I think it gives every scene a clarity of vision. We aren’t being asked to pick apart human actions for meaning. Balthazar can only observe without imposing motives. With him as the lens through which we watch the film, we are forced to see the people around Balthazar through their acts and nothing more. Is Gerard pure evil? We don’t know, but he certainly acts evilly. Likewise, Arnold is not a saint, but we understand how thoroughly alcoholism has derailed his life and how he still has a capability for goodness in taking in Balthazar.
Watching Au Hasard Balthazar I began to experience a sort of reverse Kuleshov effect. That refers to the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who demonstrated how you could change the meaning of a shot through simple editing. He would show a shot of a man looking intensely into the camera, followed by a shot of a bowl of soup. Audiences perceived the man as being hungry. When Kuleshov replaced the second shot with an image of a young girl in a coffin, but kept the first shot of the man, they now thought he was grieving.
In Au Hasard Balthazar, there are not shots or edits that suggest what Balthazar thinks about his surroundings. Bresson never infers anything about Balthazar’s state of mind that a donkey can’t express perfectly well on its own. And I think we respond with greater empathy for the animal, as well as for the characters on screen. Balthazar provides the lens through which we observe all the actions of the film, how various people treat him as well as one another.
No character is as close to Balthazar as Marie, and it’s her story that’s the most heartbreaking, her scenes with him that are the most moving. When she dresses his head in a crown of flowers and holds him close, it looks like a sacred tableau. And in those moments, Balthazar finds quiet contentment. In his simple, animal happiness, we can sense something holy.
For a whole bunch of reasons I only got to three of my Blindspot films in 2016. I’m going to try to finish up the last 9 over the next two weeks, complete with reviews. Pray for me.
Wings of Desire (1987, Wim Wenders)
I’ve always loved old things. Old objects that were once held by someone centuries ago. Old homes that have seen ages pass. Old letters, pieces of personal correspondence that become time capsules for thoughts and feelings. I love objects that stand as sentries for the passage of time, that connect us to our ancestors and will do so for our descendants. There is a beauty to the inexorable creeping of time, and how inextricably it is connected to change.
The angels in Wings of Desire are this sort of sentry. They are the opposites of agents of change. Since the dawn of time they have walked the Earth following a simple set of rules: Keep to yourself. Let things happen. Always remain serious. Do no more than look, gather, testify, verify, preserve.
An angel named Cassiel (Otto Sander) recites the rules of their great endeavor with a weary wistfulness. His fellow immortal, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and have have just finished going back and forth with their favorite fantasies of the wonders of mortal life. Damiel waxes about what it would be like to tell a lie, or to take his shoes off, or to eat a meal. There is a bittersweetness to their words, but it falls short of true malaise. Damiel and Cassiel take their work seriously. They wander Berlin, watching, observing. Children can see them, and they smile and wave. Adults can’t see angels, but angels can still attempt to comfort them, to gently influence them. We see Damiel whispering positive intonations into the ear of a depressed man on a subway, until the man stops repeating the downturns his life has taken and resolves to start anew. On another occasion, he cradles a man who has been seriously injured in an accident and helps him stop panicking, until a passerby comes to help. The angels can hear what people think, and we hear them to, in whispered, disjointed interior monologues. It’s jarring at first, but I quickly fell into the film’s trance; I write a lot about how much empathy matters in movies to me, and one of the great notes of this film’s empathy is how it finds meaning in the profoundly understandable stresses of day to day life. Every day Damiel and Cassiel encounter countless people experiencing every range of emotion, and there’s now way for them to truly interact for better or for worse. All they can do is empathize.
Damiel is clearly interested in one particular human, though: a woman named Marion, who works as a trapeze artist at a local, two-bit circus. Marion is French, and we get only hints about her life. We sense that angels lack a god’s omnipotence, that they can only glean from a person what that person thinks. Marion is troubled but not despairing. She enjoys working for the circus and is upset and lost when she hears that it is being forced to shut down early for the year. She goes back to her trailer and listens to music. Damiel follows her and observes her. He has clearly fallen in love with her, but Ganz injects an innocence into Damiel’s longing. He knows all about humanity but he is limited in what he is able to feel. His feelings more Marion are most acutely clear in a scene when she spins on a rope high above the ground for a paltry audience of schoolchildren. She is overcome with the joy of performing, and Damiel is absolutely mesmerized.
That scene is one of many demonstrations of the film’s constant humanism. We know the angels have witnessed the highs and lows of humanity, but they- and Wenders- remain enthralled by the simple joys and sorrows of life. Peter Falk plays himself in a key (and splendid) role. He is on set, working on a film, and we hear his thoughts as he sketches the portrait of an old woman working as an extra, or as he meticulously picks out a hat that he thinks suits his character. Later, Falk reveals that he can sense Damiel’s presence, and has a one-way conversation with the angel about the pleasures of having a smoke and a coffee, or of rubbing your hands together to get them warm.
This is not a film with much of a plot. It observes the characters as the angels observe humanity, patiently and with a touch of warmth and sympathy. In the film’s second act, Damiel makes a decision that would be a huge plot turn in a more conventional film, one that could easily segue into melodrama. I won’t spoil it, on the off chance you’re both reading this review and haven’t yet seen the film. But like all the rest of the movie, it leads more to observation and conversation than melodrama.
Wings of Desire is a quiet film, gentle and warm. I watched it last night and enjoyed it, but it has stayed with me these last 24 hours like a good cup of tea. It is lovely in its simplicity. It makes no attempts to make grand statements about humanity. I imagine anyone who observed people at an individual level from the dawn of time would be unable to make blanket statements about all people, after all.
It made me wonder, would I consider trading places with one of these angels, with the rules they have? I don’t think so; I’m with Peter Falk on this one, that the joys and pleasures of living are worth mortality, but I think Wim Wenders also makes the case that there is value to the sort of wisdom gained by the angels, that by knowing and observing and trying hard understand, we can also gain greater appreciation for the small pleasures that come our way. In a film full of monologues about the meaning of our individual lives, the longest, and the last, comes from Marion. Having worked through her a fog of loneliness and indecision, she makes a declaration of love:
Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it because today I am finally lonely. No more coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if destiny exists, but decision does exist. Decide. Now we are the times. Not only the whole city, but the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are more than just two. We personify something…
Marion’s monologue is, I think, as thrilling an ending as this movie could have had; a declarative moment of clarity, for one’s own happiness, in a film that observes how often we find ourselves lost in hazes of indecision, about characters devoted to a cause that renders the concept of “happiness” irrelevant in the face of the passage of ages.