One of most influential movements in cinema came in the form of the French New Wave. Visionary filmmakers like Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol sought to shatter the formulas and artifices that dominated mainstream movies. These brilliant auteurs redefined the art of cinema while also developing their own distinct styles and unique techniques. Nestled comfortably in the male-dominated movement was Agnès Varda, a pioneering filmmaker who gave the era a strong female voice. Varda was known as the grandmother of the movement and one of her signature films is “Cléo from 5 to 7” from 1962.
The film is about a singer named Cléo (played by Corinne Marchand). She is a tall beautiful picture of health, but we quickly learn she is ill and awaiting test results that could have serious after-effects. The story follows Cléo as she walks through Paris shopping, meeting friends, doing anything she can to take her mind off of the news she expects to receive later that evening. Along the way we see her wrestling with mortality and struggling to maintain any sense of optimism.
At around the halfway point of the film we realize that Cléo is also wrestling with her own identity. She has become exactly what everyone expects her to be. Her superstitious maid treats her like a child. Her musical collaborators don’t take her talents seriously. She is treated like a toy of convenience by her boyfriend. All seem indifferent to her illness and unconcerned about her worries. Cléo takes off on her on and for the last half of the film we see her shedding layers of her old self. It’s a rediscovery of sorts in the two hours left until she is to get her diagnosis.
“Cléo from 5 to 7” is told through a subtle documentarian style – a technique often used by New Wave directors. Varda tells the story in almost real-time allowing us to gather information by simply following Cléo around. Her camera often sits and observes while other times it’s in a constant state of motion. There are some fabulous long tracking shots specifically of car rides around Paris. Then there are quiet but powerful moments where the camera focuses on Marchand’s face. Varda was known as a talented photographer and we see it reflected throughout this film.
Marchand is a nice fit for the role of Cléo. I loved watching her start as a beautiful but scripted human being and then transform into her equally beautiful but truer self. We see her peel off the facade she’s built on other’s expectations and Varda represents this in Cléo both physically and emotionally. The character runs the gamut of emotions which culminates in a final intensely satisfying shot of Marchand’s face. It’s a very interesting and subtly expressive performance that nicely serves Varda’s vision.
“Cléo from 5 to 7” is La Nouvelle Vague through and through. Those unfamiliar with the New Wave movement will instantly notice the artistic uniqueness and nuances that have influenced filmmakers to this day. And after so many years this film still feels like something fresh and innovative. That is a testament to Agnès Varda’s remarkable writing and direction and the pioneer vision that she and so many of these filmmakers maintained.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS