IN THE CRITIC’S CHAIR | Cléo from 5 to 7

 


Cléo from 5 to 7 stands out as one of Agnès Varda’s most conceptually ingenious films: alive with wit and pathos. Following its protagonist Cléo for ninety minutes of real-time in which she busies herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy, it stages complex experiences of time and personhood with light-footed cinematic invention. Peppered with well-placed enigmas – from the colour shots that begin an otherwise black and white film to its abrupt, portentous ending – it has kept the critics mulling.


Upon the release of Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1962, the New York Times dourly made note of “another French film that fairly glitters with photographic and cinematic ‘style’, yet fails to do more than skim the surface of a cryptic dramatic theme”. In the intervening years, the temperature of critical opinion has dramatically improved. Richard Brody, in a New Yorker review following Varda’s recent passing, distilled the tension at the heart of Cléo from 5 to 7:

In Cléo, the story of a woman who is killing time in the face of death, Varda ... rendered the act of observation tensely dramatic.


Roger Ebert, among many others, highlighted the acuteness of Varda’s eye and photographic concision: 

Try freezing any frame of the scenes in her apartment and you will find perfect composition – perfect, but not calling attention to itself.


As Cléo’s title announces, the film’s playing out in “real time” is its crucial characteristic. Adrian Martin, writing for Criterion’s The Current, reflected on the implications and rewards of the conceit:

The entire drama (and comedy) of the piece is based on the productive discrepancy between two very different sorts of time – the real clock time, passing second by second ... and what Pascal Bonitzer once called the “passionate time”, the experience of time that contracts or expands according to how we feel it. Apprehension, boredom, desire—the film is a succession of these emotional states that, taken together, pose a countertime, a time of the heart. And this heart time swells in the course of the film, ultimately transcending the mundaneness – and the menace – of everyday entropy. 


In Slant, meanwhile, Eric Henderson decrypts the film’s tantalising paradoxes and puzzles – not least the disparity between its 90 minute runtime and the two hours of its title:

Cléo from 5 to 7 serves as a reminder that even the most cunning, ruthlessly intellectual filmmakers can also create wondrous playgrounds, so long as they’re in touch with their own giddy paradoxes.


For Adam Scovell, in Little White Lies, it is the sheer quantity of stuff captured by Varda’s inexhaustibly curious camera that makes Cléo, a modern-day equivalent of Emile Zola’s ethnographies of Paris:

Its perambulatory eye fills the screen with detail, so much detail in fact that an essay would be worthier to cover the sheer amount of interesting references … Such curiosity in the everyday – in things, thoughts and wanders – is really the mission statement of Varda’s filmmaking as a whole and it was Cléo who first walked it into being.


Writing for Another Gaze, Lauren Elkin deconstructs the sharp, human insight that steers Varda’s lens: 

The scene in the middle of Cléo where she has just fled her apartment and she’s picturing all the people she knows judging her, and Varda shows each of them in turn as Cléo thinks of them, facing the camera without moving: her maid, her composer, her cats, and then her hairpiece, sitting on top of her mirror where she threw it, silently judging her. It’s so minor but it’s so Varda – witty and inspired and surreal. It comes in the midst of so many lush emotional colours – the pathos of the song Cléo has just sung, the steady throb of fear and dread about her health, and the terrifying liberation of just walking out on everyone and striking out into the city – and then this anthropomorphic comedy. It’s genius.


In her obituary of Varda for Sight & Sound, So Mayer cautioned against an overemphasis on lightness approaching Cléo, gesturing towards its more sombre context:  

Even Cléo ... moves through Paris under the dual shadow of the Algerian War of Independence and her own potential cancer diagnosis.

 

Cléo from 5 to 7 is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to a new film every week.