Friday, June 12, 2015

Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)

Cléo de 5 à 7, France / Italy, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Agnes Varda
Photography: Paul Bonis, Alain Levent, Jean Rabier
Music: Michel Legrand
Editors: Pascale Laverriere, Janine Verneau
Cast: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothee Blanck, Michel Legrand, Dominique Davray, Lucienne Marchand, Serge Korber

The premise of Cleo From 5 to 7 is simple yet evocative, detailing the interval (in the late afternoon of the longest day of the year) during which a young French pop star waits to get the results of a biopsy. Though a good deal of somewhat unlikely incident is packed into its 90 minutes the presentation is close to real time. Made during the heights of the French New Wave, it even includes cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, as if to bear the stamp of an imprimatur. It is certainly as playful as anything made by Godard, moving about a privileged Paris in freewheeling fashion. It may be as programmatic and multileveled as well, with its arch chaptering and indulgences of fashion and music and visuals.

Yet we see these things from a decidedly alternate point of view, through the eyes of someone who wonders if it won't be the last time. Director and writer Agnes Varda brings an unusual perspective for this vein of cinema—a woman's—focusing on the familiar figure of a fictional pop star, Cleo Victoire (Corinne Marchand in her biggest role), who by manner and appearance is straight out of Godard or Antonioni, easily perceived and pigeonholed as beautiful, shallow, vacant, over-privileged, fragile. It was one ideal of the feminine at this point in film, not just in the French and Italian concoctions, but in America too with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Natalie Wood. Indeed, the world had been seized at this time by "Pop" (capitalized), which people are still at work unpacking 50 years on. On one level, Agnes Varda's version is just another installment, but one of the best.

The script is a model of economy, going in and out of shops, cafes , pop songwriting sessions, artist's studios, hospital grounds, and perhaps more than anything, in and around the streets and parks of Paris, in meditative long shots that continually bring the action back to a very still place, even on crowded, busy streets. It opens on a tarot card reading (the cards filmed in color, the only color in the movie), where the predictions are dire and ominous. Cleo leaves the sitting in tears, and escapes to the lobby of the building, where she stops before a mirror, comforting herself: "Ugliness is a kind of death," she thinks in voiceover, primping. "As long as I'm beautiful, I'm even more alive than the others."

She appears thus, by design, in the worst possible light at first: superstitious, vain, self-involved, a hypochondriac. She is even more childish in the next scene, in a cafe, where her maid, a middle-aged woman, laughs off her anxieties as more of the usual. These early scenes (a visit to a hat shop follows) infantilize Cleo and then the rest of the movie is spent reversing that, in stuttering, lurching steps, back and forth.

For example, back at her apartment (a capacious space where the first statement she makes to her maid is, "I'm suffocating"), she has a 5:30 meeting with songwriting collaborators, who treat her with the kind of indulgent contempt reserved for silly children whose parents one cannot offend. This scene, with Michel Legrand as Bob the pianist, is one of the best in the picture. They run through fragments of songs, whose hooks fly by quickly—just as you realize what you're hearing might be a good song, one of them interrupts it and they move on to something else. Finally they appear to settle on one, "Cry of Love," an overdone (yet lovely) break-up song. "Without you," goes the chorus. "Without you." The camera pivots into a black backdrop and Cleo fills the frame and it becomes a production, a rich and swelling one. But it is too emotionally resonant for Cleo. She cuts it off, has a fit, throwing things around, and goes to a corner of the room to change into black.

We see through Cleo's eyes all the ways she is undercut and mocked, even as she may be facing the end of her life—which we always partially doubt, as does everyone around her. She is hard to take seriously, and she knows that. She goes to one cafe and plays one of her songs on the jukebox, as if testing the reality of her existence. No one pays the slightest attention to it or to her.

As the story moves through its set pieces, as each scene plays out and moves to the next, with the wonderful interludes of street scenes and quiet, even among the tumult, we continually come to a fuller sense of Cleo. No incident here is particularly believable, especially in such a packed sequence, but life is different for pop stars so it's easy to make allowances. A late glimpse of her, around 6:30 (Cleo from 6:30 to 7 is not part of this movie), in the everyday clothes of anyone and divested of much of the fakery of her pop star glamour, betrays the sense of a complete person. We have learned her real name is Florence. It's Florence who is finally fully revealed.

Top 10 of 1962
1. Lawrence of Arabia
2. Cleo From 5 to 7
3. Harakiri
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
5. Cape Fear
6. An Autumn Afternoon
7. Advise and Consent
8. The Manchurian Candidate
9. Lolita
10. Carnival of Souls

Other write-ups: Jules and Jim

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