Finishing Blindspot 2016 #4: Cleo From 5 to 7
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.