Sixty years after it was first released, Cléo from 5 to 7 has finally leapt into the top 20: a slow pace for a film so light on its feet. When was this immaculate feature film, Agnès Varda’s essay on time and space, love and death, ever not on our minds?
Arriving with the first surge of the French New Wave, Cléo from 5 to 7 crackles with the energy and modernity of that cinephile movement, but it’s ultimately an introspective piece, characterised by the philosophical preoccupations of Varda’s Left Bank peers. Corinne Marchand plays Cléo, a blonde pop singer whose vanity relaxes as her anxieties swell. As the film begins, she visits a tarot reader, hoping for good news about the medical test results she is awaiting – but the cards spell only death, and transformation.
While Cléo’s mind is fixed on the future, Varda’s camera captures her in the present tense, killing time in Paris as she ponders her own decay. Echoing Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Varda dissects a trip down the stairs to emphasise the moment as it passes, one we would otherwise have missed. As Cléo, a Parisian Mrs Dalloway, walks the streets of her city, Varda also captures a broader sense of time, an era in history: Paris in the early 1960s, with its crowds, cafés, shops, music, fashion and cinema. The geography is precise: Varda called the film “the portrait of a woman painted on to a documentary about Paris”.
The film shifts from colour to blackand- white to remind us that this is what cinema does – it transforms life. A film within the film turns the idea into a joke: life makes no sense in monochrome. But Cléo is transformed by the film, by these 90 minutes and the images of herself and her future that confront her everywhere. In real time, Cléo becomes more real, more subject than object, more human, more in tune with the city. She discards her whipped-cream wig and polka dots for a simple black shift. She performs less and feels more.
With the kind of playfulness that Varda enjoyed so much, we could call this ticking- clock film timeless. From the feminist analysis of a woman’s commodified beauty and a celebrity’s self-regarding narcissism to the vulnerable heroine acting out her messy emotions in public, the spectre of war and the fear of disease darkening a midsummer day, Cléo from 5 to 7 feels pertinent to the modern moment. It always will. Marchand’s Cléo was pinned in a point in time, but the film marches on, playing on a loop in our imaginations.