Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m alive, I’m beautiful.

This was my introduction to French New Wave cinema. Though it may, initially, appear to be a film about largely trivial events, Cléo from 5 to 7 is, to my mind, an exploration of the awareness of mortality, a complex, real-time portrait (though it’s actually only 90 minutes long, so Cléo from 5 to 6:30 would be more fitting) of a woman who has come to believe she is dying. Cléo wanders through the streets of ’60s Paris with her maid as she awaits the results of her biopsy, ambling from café to hat shop to movie theatre, biding her time with the piercing sense that all is soon to end.

The camera often cuts between Cléo’s perspective, and snippets of casual conversations between other Parisians sipping coffees in cafés, revealing trivial tidbits of their lives – lovers breaking up, friends discussing politics – deepening the theme of the film, and lending a sense of tragedy to Cléo’s fear of leaving no lasting impact on the world. There is an artfully executed long-take of Cleo singing one of her songs, ‘Sans Tois’, with lyrics depicting the conflict and anxiety she feels over death. The extreme, almost uncomfortably intimate close-up of her face forces us as the audience to confront her (and our own?) undeniable inner turmoil.

cleo

It’s no surprise that director Agnès Varda was trained as a serious photographer – the composition of every frame is a treat for photography lovers, being perfect in its placement of characters in a scene. The unique artistic devices carry the film; indeed, rather than the dialogue or story arc, it’s these clever uses of the camera that form its very essence.

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