Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Director Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7”

On October 14, the Music Box Theater in Chicago showed Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” and after the film the director came on stage for a question and answer session conducted by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

I was lucky enough to be in town that day and in attendance that night.

Ms. Varda was in the windy city for a week-long retrospective of her films and her photography and to teach classes at the University of Chicago.

The 1962 film is the story of a young Parisian woman, played by Corrine Marchand, nervously awaiting the results of a cancer screening. She tries to fill her time and distract herself from thoughts of possible bad news by visiting friends, walking in her neighborhood, going to a café, and wandering in a park. Nothing seems to help and she continues to fret until she meets a sympathetic soldier on leave who befriends her and agrees to go with her to the hospital and helps her find the courage to face the doctor at seven o’clock.

The film, one of the best of the French New Wave movement (and my personal favorite), tells its story in nearly real time. Ms. Varda, laughed when asked about this, and said she aimed for exactly real time, however, while the story covers two hours of Cleo’s life, the movie only runs 90 minutes.

“Cleo from 5 to 7” seems simple on the surface, but it is quite complex.

It opens with Cleo consulting a fortune teller who sees death in the tarot cards. While she refuses to tell Cleo what she sees, her reaction frightens Cleo. Next, Cleo’s personal assistant further worries her with her superstitious talk.

Getting outside and walking through her neighborhood only relieves her anxiety temporarily until she meets the sensible soldier. They walk, talk, and then take the bus to the hospital together, all the while developing a nice rapport. The film, which starts with superstition, ends with science as Cleo meets with her doctor.

The near-capacity crowd, which included many young women who came out to see a film about a woman made by a woman, appreciated the movie and applauded it at the finish. The applause continued as the 87-year-old director was escorted onto the stage by Mr. Rosenbaum. The witty, energetic and highly intelligent Ms. Varda was willing to take many questions from Mr. Rosenbaum and the audience, and to talk at length about the film, her career and her associates.

Noting the structure of the film, Rosenbaum said the story is in two halves. In the first, Cleo, a pop singer, is a self-centered, diva wearing fancy clothes and a wig. But when nothing seems to relieve her anxiety, she rejects superstition, pulls off the wig, changes to a simple dress and goes out to visit friends, observe other people, and take note of the world around her.

“You got the point, my dear,” Ms. Varda said with a smile and the audience enjoyed her quip. By the way, Agnes Varda’s English is excellent.

Despite a heavy topic, “Cleo from 5 to 7” has a light, free spirited feeling to it. This is due to Ms. Varde’s shooting style. Like most of the New Wave directors, she filmed in the streets, in moving cars and in the apartments of friends. Using the new, light-weight equipment of the time and employing documentary techniques, she was free to shoot where she wanted and was not enclosed in a studio.

A moment that captures this style is the scene in which Cleo goes into a shop and tries on hats, moving from display to display and from mirrors to windows.

In one sequence, Cleo goes with a friend to see a projectionist. In the booth, they watch a short that is being shown, which in “Cleo from 5 to 7” is a film within a film, and a takeoff on silent comedies. Like “Cleo from 5 to 7” itself, the short is populated with friends of Ms. Varda’s including the famous New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard.

At the mention of Godard, some in the audience booed. But Ms. Varda quieted the crowed saying Godard and his then girlfriend, actress Anna Karina, were friends and frequently spent Sunday afternoons with Ms. Varda and her husband, New Wave director Jacques Demy.

Godard, she said of the provocative bad-boy director, was an important part of the New Wave.

“He was working to create a new language for film,” she said.

Ms. Varda created the cameo for Godard to not only get him in front of the camera, but also to get the director to remove his ever-present sunglasses. “He had beautiful eyes,” she said. “Like Buster Keaton’s.”

About 20 years ago, Madonna approached Agnes Varda about remaking “Cleo from 5 to 7.” But nothing came of the idea, she said.

Agnes Varda has been making films for 60 years. Her first feature, “La Pointe Courte” was produced in 1955, preceding the French New Wave by three years.

In the 50 years since directing “Cleo from 5 to 7,” Agnes Varda has directed nine other feature films and many shorts and documentaries.

(For more links to films and television, see Todd Mason’s site.)


  1. Replies
    1. It really is. I’ve seen it several times and each time I find something new and amazing in it.

  2. I envy you the experience, here...I've been meaning to see the entirety of the film for some years now (my ability to run across fragments of films and broadcasts and cablecasts halfway through is nearly unparalleled). I'm glad the audience mocked Godard, and that Varda chided them gently...he was important but also quite pompous, and was responsible for some of the worst and best of the Novelle Vague. I wonder how much that earlier feature might've anticipated the others' work...

    1. Todd – This one is worth seeing. There is a very good DVD out now. Seeing it on the big screen in a restored digital version was great. As for Godard – I appreciate his work, but there are only a couple of his films I actually like. I would have enjoyed hearing more about the formative years of the New Wave and specifically about the social side of the group. I wondered what those Sunday afternoons with Godard were like. Did the four of them talk about innovations in cinema, or about rising prices, sports scores and traffic?

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  4. Sounds like an entertaining evening. I'll keep an eye out for this one.