Summer time has almost arrived and the living's easy. We may be a month away from the official start, but tonight's feature will ignore that because we are talking about Agnes Varda's new wave classic Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). I hope you folks haven't grown tired of the recent emphasis on the French New Wave. One of my problems with life is a tendency to fixate my focus, as it were, and Varda's film remains worthy of obsession.
The movie begins June 21, as the sun--so we are told--passes from Gemini into Cancer, a fact that does not endear the fretting Cleo much to reality because hers is a world that only mimics such illusions as pain and grief. She is a pop singer, crooning out tunes written for her by a pianist composer and lyricist. Not even a chanteuse may avoid death, or its antecedents, and as the movie begins we learn that Cleo (Corrine Marchand) believes herself to have stomach cancer. The fortune teller's tarot cards don't quite confirm this suspicion, but they certainly fail to rule it out.
This startlingly well-framed and vibrant movie runs in the real time between five and seven, the hours when, as French legend holds, lovers come together. But Cleo hasn't interest in things as potentially tragic as real love. She hides within the safety of a sterile flat with a maid and two kittens, plus the frequent drop-in of assorted visitors, including a boyfriend who can't be bothered with drawing close, a girlfriend who works as a nude figure model for struggling sculptors, and the girlfriend's beau, a film projectionist who treats them and us to a clever short film within the film, one starring director Jean-Luc Godard and actor Anna Karina.
I began the previous paragraph with the statement that this movie is well-framed. Agnes Varda was originally a still photographer. Perhaps nothing in still photography bores a viewer as much as a well-composed image. In a moving picture, however, especially one that moves along with the click of the clock, the composition of extended shots is nothing short of unnerving. The overwhelming documentary feel of Cleo From 5 to 7 transforms the audience's center of gravity with the colliding poetry of visuals that dance along like iambic pentameter. Whether the frame holds a man's face as he proceeds to swallow live frogs or the countenances of Cleo and Antoine punctuated with the visage of an old woman waiting to board the street car they are standing upon, every twenty-fourth of a second of this movie--each frame of film--declares itself an unselfconscious portrait of Parisian mischief. Try as she might, Cleo cannot escape the impending harshness she imagines around every corner, upon every cobblestone, within each line of transient dialogue. Walking through a cafe, she drops a coin in the jukebox slot to fill the room with one of her own recordings, only to be met with a remark from a woman to a man about not being able to hear because of the "noise."
Things really happen in this movie, just as things really happen in Breathless and The 400 Blows. It is not how things happen but how what happens is told that distinguishes much of French new wave from other movements. It certainly distinguishes Varda and her work from the rest of the new wave. Despite the nearly androgynous sensibilities of Godard and Truffaut in, respectively, Masculin Feminin and Jules et Jim, they yearn for balance, whereas Agnes makes no such concession. This movie is about a woman, by a woman, and for the feminine part of both men and women. Femininity is not a glandular condition. It is a reflection of the pre-existing ideas that other people possess about a given person in a particular place and time. That reflection--and it's no coincidence that so many mirrors populate this movie--comes in large part from pop culture, the very culture that created the character Cleo purports to be. She uses and gets used in turn. What she cannot do, somehow, is hurt others, even though she remains convinced--at least until she meets Antoine--that the world exists to do her in. The doctor she meets at the film's conclusion delivers his prognosis with the detachment a biology freshman might bring to a dissected frog.
Yet Cleo still has Antoine. She has him for another hour. Then his train leaves for Algiers.