Cléo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) [DVD]
Director : Agnès Varda
Screenplay : Agnès Varda
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Corinne Marchand (Cléo), Antoine Bourseiller (Antoine), Dominique Davray (Angèle), Dorothée Blank (Dorothée), Michel Legrand (Bob, the Pianist), José Luis de Villalonga (The Lover), Loye Payen (Irma), Serge Korber (Plumitif, the lyricist), Robert Postec (Le docteur Valineau)
In Cléo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7), a young woman is at the tail end of a two-day wait to find out if she has cancer. It is five o’clock and she is due to call the doctor at seven, and as writer/director Agnès Varda allows the next hour and a half of her life to unfold in approximate real time, we are witness to the flowering of awareness. An ostensible slice-of-life melodrama that is simultaneously a document of Parisian life in the early 1960s, Cléo From 5 to 7 is at its heart a moving portrait of true, soul-stirring awakening, as the protagonist goes from being shallow and insecure to being fully aware of her life and what it could mean if she would drop her defenses.
The real beauty of Varda’s film, only her second feature, is that it works simultaneously on so many levels. It is, first and foremost, a nuanced character study, as we watch Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a self-absorbed pop singer, deal with the terrible possibilities of her own death or, worse (in her mind), disfigurement. Looking in a mirror near the beginning of the film, she proclaims that she would end her own life rather than lose her beauty, which for her is the core of her very being. She has an on-and-off lover (José Luis de Villalonga) who stops by her apartment only long enough to demonstrate why he is so unfulfilling. She stakes her future on a tarot card reading in the film’s opening scene (which Varda presents in florid color, while the rest of the story unfolds in black and white), and when the fortuneteller pulls the death card, Cléo is certain her future is bleak. The fortuneteller assures her the card doesn’t necessarily mean death, that is could also represent a metamorphosis, but at that point the young woman is not open to such a suggestion. Change might as well be death, although the next hour and a half will open her mind to such ideas.
At the same time, the film is a revealing feminist parable about a woman who makes the transition from object to subject (Pauline Kael rightly described the film as “one of the few films directed by a woman in which the viewer can sense a difference”). At the beginning of the film, Cléo’s identity is entirely enmeshed in her physical appearance and desirability. Marchand balances a fine line in conveying Cléo’s fundamental superficiality without being insufferable, which makes her gradual awakening all the more inspiring. As she is faced with her own mortality, she slowly comes to grips with the fact that there is more to life than that to which she has staked her own.
A series of encounters with different characters helps to open her mind in different ways. She spends some time with a longtime friend who works as a nude model (Dorothée Blank) and in the process comes to realize that there is joy to be found in simple beauties, rather than manufactured ones (the film’s pivotal moment is when Cléo tears off her showy wig and ventures into Paris alone). During a respite in a park she meets a young soldier named Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) who is also facing his own mortality as he is about to board a train and return to duty in the dangerous French province of Algeria. Antoine at first appears to be picking her up, but it is quickly evident that they are mutual souls in search of something greater than themselves. Thus, Cléo’s transition from object to subject does not entail the outright rejection of all men, but rather the acceptance of one who sees her as a soul, rather than a body.
The film is also rightfully regarded as one of the high points of the French New Wave, having been made in the still pulsating aftermath of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless(1959) and François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). Varda’s uniquely female perspective makes the film stand out from its New Wave counterparts, even as it evokes many of the same formal and thematic preoccupations (handheld cameras, location photography, jump-cut editing, and abrupt shifts in tone and genre, as when the film suddenly morphs into a musical when Cléo rehearses a song and when it slips into a clever silent film-within-the-film featuring Godard and Anna Karina in showy cameos).
Varda originally trained as a photojournalist and entered filmmaking via documentaries, and that training shows in her films. Cléo From 5 to 7 is a beautiful arrangement of precise compositions and loose handheld camerawork. She recognizes Corinne Marchand’s inherent beauty, but also finds the anxiety behind her eyes that, in a striking way, makes her that much more alluring. Varda’s long shots of Cléo walking through the Parisian streets situates her visually in a hurried world that has little time to dwell on one woman’s predicament, yet that is precisely what Varda is asking of us. Her film, one of the cornerstones of the French New Wave, is a beautiful evocation of how we are never truly alone.
|Cléo From 5 to 7 Criterion Collection DVD|
|Cléo From 5 to 7 is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection’s “4 by Agnès Varda” box set. The box also includes La Pointe Courte (1954), Le bonheur (1964), and Vagabond (1985).|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$79.96 (box set)|
|Release Date||January 22, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Although Cléo From 5 to 7 has already been released by Criterion twice--once on laser disc and once on DVD--this new disc is a significant improvement in terms of visual quality. The non-progressive, nonanamorphic transfer on the original DVD has been replaced by a beautiful new anamorphic transfer that was supervised and directed by Varda. Taken from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original camera negative and then digitally restored, the image is clear, clean, and very well-detailed. The opening color shots are rich and well-saturated, which makes the sudden shift to crisp black and white that much more striking. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical soundtrack and digitally restored, sounds very nice.|
|Both of Criterion’s previous releases of Cléo From 5 to 7 were virtually bare-bones affairs. This time, they have put together an excellent collection of supplements benefiting such a worthy film. First up is Remembrances (2005), a 36-minute documentary about the making of the film that reunites much of the original cast and crew, including Varda and actors Corinne Marchand and Antoine Bourseiller. In another 2005 short documentary titled Cléo’s Real Path Through Paris, filmmaker Pierre-William Glenn uses a motorcycle to retrace Cléo’s steps through Paris in real time. The resulting 9-minute film is an interesting, if slighty bumpy evocation of how Paris has and has not changed in the ensuing four decades. Fans of Varda’s work will certain be exhilarated by the inclusion of two of her early short films: L’opéra Mouffe (1958), one of her earliest shorts, and Les fiancés du pont Macdonald (1961), the “film within the film” in Cléo starring Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Eddie Constantine (it is preceded by a new, 3-minute video introduction by Varda). Finally, there is a gallery of rather ghoulish paintings by German painter Hans Baldung Grien, whose work inspired the character of Cléo; a theatrical trailer; and excerpts from a 1993 French television special Madonna, c’est Madonna in which the pop star and Varda discuss the film, including Madonna’s then desire to (shudder) star in a remake.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection