Cléo de 5 a 7
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Cléo de 5 a 7

Steven Ungar

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eBook - ePub

Cléo de 5 a 7

Steven Ungar

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Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), Agnes Varda's classic 1962 work depicts, in near real-time, 90 minutes in the life of Cléo, a young woman in Paris awaiting the results of medical tests that she fears will confirm a fatal condition. The film, whose visual beauty matches its evocation of early-Fifth Republic Paris, was a major point of reference for the French New Wave despite the fact that Varda never considered herself a member of the core Cahiers du cinéma group of critics-turned- film-makers. Ungar provides a close reading of the film and situates it in its social, political and cinematic contexts, tracing Varda's early career as a student of art history and as a photographer, the history of post-war French film, and the lengthy Algerian war to which Cléo's health concerns and ambitions to become a pop singer make her more or less oblivious. His study is the first to set a reading of Cléo's formal and technical complexity alongside an analysis of its status as a visual document of its historical moment. Steven Ungar's foreword to this new edition looks back upon Varda's film-making career and considers her contributions as a female auteur and in the context of the French New Wave.

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A film about time and space
If, at a certain level of abstraction, all films are about time and space, some are more so than others. Cléo de 5 à 7 is an account of ninety minutes – from 5pm to 6.30pm on 21 June 1961 – in the life of an aspiring pop singer, Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), who awaits the results of medical tests she fears will confirm stomach cancer. With measurable time a major formal constraint around which the film is structured, the presumed equivalence of running or screen time and narrative duration suggests an immediacy of actions in the present, ‘of recording life as it is lived’.52 It is, however, important to note that ellipses, tropes, extensions and compressions throughout the film disclose this immediacy as represented rather than recorded. Breaks in shot continuity and in linear chronology also support the equivalence of screen time and narrative duration as approximate rather than strict. Varda first heightened attention to measured duration (chronometry) by dividing Cléo into a narrative comprised of a prologue and thirteen chapters, with each of the latter marked by starting and ending times and by a title bearing the name of one or more characters. The prologue’s duration is unmarked, but the first chapter’s listed starting time at 17h05 (5.05pm) confirms that the prologue is fully integrated into the chronological (‘real-time’) format. On occasion, individual settings and sequences extend over two chapters to reflect different perspectives on a single set of actions. Varda repeatedly overlaid objects associated with measured duration such as clocks, metronomes and taxi meters with a subjective temporality of anxious expectation. The sound of a clock ticking on a mantel accompanies the opening dialogue between the fortune teller and Cléo in the prologue. Even when they are in the background or appear only fleetingly, clocks visible in the fortune teller’s salon, in Cléo’s apartment and outside on the city streets draw the spectator’s gaze as though in emphatic identification with Cléo. These clocks also serve as visual checks to confirm that the film is playing by the rules it establishes.
Departing from measurable duration, Cléo’s anxiety concerning the outcome of her medical tests accumulates across individual chapters of seemingly little consequence towards its presumed resolution marked in advance at 18h30 (6.30pm). A suitable idiom for the temporal expression of this anxiety is that of dead time, understood as an interval not immediately related to the resolution of a central story. A related idiom – ‘killing time’ – likewise heightens the dramatic force of Cléo’s desire to fill the ninety minutes that separate her from a prognosis concerning her medical health, about which she is understandably ambivalent. This ambivalence is a product of the dramatic tension between Cléo’s anxiety concerning the prospect of imminent death and her desire to learn the truth. It motivates her to turn her primary focus of attention away from this resolution that she wants simultaneously to hasten and to defer. Varda has characterised the interaction among these two durations in musical terms, as variations on a metronome and violin.53 It is also possible to understand Cléo’s ambivalence – her desire both to avoid and to confront a painful truth – as an offshoot of what Freud referred to in Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920) and elsewhere as a death drive (Todestriebe) staged throughout the film by omens of death only some of which Cléo sees.54
Varda anchored this mix of measured and subjective time in the geography of Paris with an attention to spatial detail that was close to topographic. Sequences of Cléo and her secretary-confidante, Angèle (Dominique Davray), riding in a taxi, of Cléo walking in Montparnasse and of Cléo and Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) in an open-platform bus disclosed details of urban architecture, clothing and cultural activities – from pop music to art exhibits, theatre productions and avant-garde films – that marked the moment and the period. Some details took on added meaning in light of Cléo’s personal concerns. Others varied in register and resonance from wordplay and period authenticity to national politics. Cléo’s anxiety sharpens her attentiveness to objects and messages she links to illness and death. And this occasionally to the point of a paranoia that sets her at odds with a human and spatial environment she takes to be threatening. As Cléo and Angèle return by taxi to her apartment in Montparnasse, they pass a Left Bank art gallery on the rue Guénégaud whose displays of African masks frighten Cléo because she sees them as omens of supra-human powers. Her fear heightens when a black student among art students parading in costume draws near the taxi and plays at scaring her. It is as though one of the masks she had just seen suddenly came to life.
The relative absence of people of colour in the film – two appear briefly as Cléo walks through the Dôme in chapter VIII and two more are seen outside the Montparnasse train station in chapter XI (see top image on p. 72) – makes this encounter all the more jarring. If the Paris through which Cléo moves is largely white and middle class, Varda seems at times to dwell on non-whites, whose presence evokes migration from territories in North and sub-Saharan Africa that had recently attained independence from French colonial rule. The major exception among these territories in June 1961 remained that of an Algeria many French on both sides of the Mediterranean were unwilling to give up.
Varda continually set the subjective perception associated with Cléo’s anxiety against a depiction of urban Paris that drew on documentary concerns already evident in La Pointe-Courte and L’Opéra Mouffe .The effect was archival and close to ethnographic, especially as details of the period in question have receded into a past that fewer and fewer of the film’s spectators have witnessed first hand. The taxi sequence (chapters III and IV) includes a radio broadcast of news items ranging from demonstrations in Algeria and among farmers in the French provinces to the upcoming Tour de France bicycle race and the state of Edith Piaf’s health following a life-threatening condition. These news items document daily life and the historical moment to which Cléo’s preoccupations make her alternately hypersensitive and aloof. The mention of Edith Piaf is doubly charged with meaning in light of Cléo’s professional ambitions and the unstable status of Piaf’s health, with which Cléo empathises. In line with such documentary and archival concerns, Varda used a recording of the actual radio broadcast on Europe no. 1.55
A third evocation of time in the film involves an appeal to occult practices as a form of what Judith Mayne has aptly called ‘primitive narration’.56 Since the film begins with Cléo consulting a fortune teller, it is probably no coincidence that the film occurs on 21 June the day the astrological calendar moves from the sign of Gemini to that of Cancer. (Incomplete financing had forced a three-month postponement from the 21 March starting date Varda had originally chosen.) Where the card reader predicts that Cléo will undergo a deep transformation of her entire being, the doctor in the final sequence suggests only that her condition – to which he never refers explicitly as cancer – is treatable. Opposing perspectives – the first occult and the second clinical – thus frame Varda’s account of Cléo’s concerns with the impact of a potentially fatal condition. Yet these frames fail to match, with the authority of the ‘scientific’ male doctor trumping that of the presumably more primitive female fortune teller.
Varda paired these three models of time – chronological, subjective and astrological – with a spatial logic that traced Cléo’s itinerary through Paris as a near-loop. The film starts in a commercial district on the Right Bank before moving south across the Seine to the Left Bank neighbourhoods of St-Germain des Prés, Montparnasse, the Parc Montsouris and ending at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière near the Jardin des Plantes, the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Seine. This trajectory included no fewer than forty-eight locations. Varda the cartographer has created two maps of Cléo’s itinerary. The first appeared in the screenplay of the film, published in 1962. The second, in Varda par Agnès, included film stills colour-coded to mark their placement in the order of the film’s sequences. These maps plotted the film in two ways; first, by disclosing its structure in the mode of a static image; and, second, by marking the spatial direction of the narrative within the city of Paris. When the prologue sequence is added to the thirteen chapters that follow it, the sum of fourteen temporal units matches the numerical limits of the urban districts (arrondissements one through fourteen) in which the film takes place.
Varda’s complex structuring of space and time is crucial to the way Cléo tells and shows a story that many critics consider a figurative equation of woman and city. Varda first posits this equation visually, with Cléo in the frame or as the origin of point-of-view shots for nearly the entire ninety minutes of the film. One brief exception occurs in the prologue, when the fortune teller states to a man – her husband? – sitting in a small room or closet that she saw cancer in Cléo’s future. A second occurs in chapter VI when the musicians Bob and Plumitif disguise themselves as male nurses. A third is the short film-within-a film in chapter X that Cléo watches from a projection booth with two friends. These exceptions break the continuity of perspective originating from or around Cléo. They underscore the extent to which her narcissism isolates her from others as well as from social and historical concerns of the moment first invoked by the radio news broadcast heard during the taxi ride across Paris.
The figurative equation of woman and city evolves minute by minute as Cléo approaches her final destination, the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière.57 Varda’s sustained attention to time and space within an urban setting recalls modernist films of the 1920s and, in particular, city symphonies such as Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (Book of Hours, 1926) and Dziga Vertov’s Cheloveks kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929). A worthy literary antecedent is Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel which likewise traces a day in the life of her female protagonist. Much like Cléo, Woolf’s novel, an early draft of which she entitled ‘The Hours’, included a detailed urban topography as Clarissa Dalloway walks through London on errands to prepare for a dinner party to be held at her home later the same day. As in Cléo, Dalloway’s walk leads to an encounter with death as her itinerary crosses that of a shell-shocked World War I veteran, Septimus Smith. A second literary echo evokes Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), in which a young Dane is shocked by the impersonal death he sees on the faces of passers-by he encounters in the streets while visiting Paris.
By the clock and on the map
One measure of a significant novel, play, poem or film is its ability to engage successive generations of first-time readers or spectators, as well as those who return to it anew. The enduring appeal of Cléo de 5 à 7 since its 1962 release derives initially from Varda’s mastery of cinematographic staging (mise en scène) as a synthesis of visual and sound element...

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