Agnès Varda passes away: Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the most famous films of veteran French filmmaker

Baradwaj Rangan

Apr 04, 2019 13:02:28 IST

In the September/October 2017 issue of Film Comment, Agnès Varda said, “There is only one old friend left now, Jean-Luc Godard.”

As a reader, I felt sad, but Varda was probably being very matter-of-fact about it. She said, “Although I’m quite happy to be old, my whole body often aches, and I have the feeling that the end is approaching. At some point, I will eventually bid farewell to my own life.” The interviewer asked if she was afraid of that. “No, no, not at all. I tell myself, my health is fading, I’m losing my memory, I am more and more weak… but these are all normal processes of human life.” If you’ve seen Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), you’ll recognise this philosophy isn’t something Varda acquired in her later years. In Cléo, the heroine faces death. But the film itself is less sad than... wistful, maybe.

Agnès Varda passes away: Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the most famous films of veteran French filmmaker

Agnes Varda. Source: Twitter

Through the news on a car radio, we get a sense of the world of the time in Cléo from 5 to 7. There’s more rioting in Algeria. (The latest casualty figures: 20 dead, 60 wounded.) In Paris, before a military tribunal, a rebel in the Algiers uprising has been sentenced to six years in prison. The farmers’ unrest has lasted two weeks, and they have broken through police barriers. 4000 demonstrators in St. Nazaire shouted “Free the Bretons”. Three workmen in the Gennevilliers sewers were overcome by escaping gas. A young Englishman crossed the Channel in 6 hours and 20 minutes on a brass bedstead, mounted on floats. And if the newsreader had had the dope on a small-time pop singer named Cléo, he’d have probably said that she’s been feeling ill, she’s had a biopsy and is waiting for the results, and that she’s visited a tarot reader that day.

The film appears to unfold in real time, even if it runs thirty minutes less than the two hours promised in the title. But its major accomplishment is to capture the present tense of a woman whose condition may soon consign her to the past. This is one of the most vital films woven around the subject of death. Varda never went to film school. She said she went to the theatre and walked the streets. She told (I am not making up the name of this journal) cléo, “It’s not a film about the Algerian War. It’s not a film about cancer. It’s a film about finding threads in the world. The theme of death and beauty is a terrible one. We want to protect beauty. Lots of painters paint beauty; me, I made a film about it.”

At least one kind of beauty in this film is the superficial kind. Cléo is beautiful. After she leaves the tarot reader, she looks at a mirror and thinks, “Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m even more alive than the others.” A little later, she looks into another mirror at a shop selling hats. “Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me!” Even about her illness, she’s relieved it’s a pain in her belly. “I’d rather it be there. At least people can’t see it there.” Is she shallow? After all, she does confide to a friend who models nude for sculptors that she wouldn’t be comfortable posing that way. “I’d feel so exposed, afraid they’d find a fault.” Or is Cléo a representation of the beauty standards that women in the public eye are asked to adhere to, and therefore so often imbibe as part of their personality?

Corinne Marchand (R) in Cléo from 5 to 7

Corinne Marchand (R) in Cléo from 5 to 7

But slowly, Cléo seems to become aware of the beauty outside her as well. The prospect of death can do that sometimes. It can pull you out of yourself. While she walks, the camera gaze turns subjective, and as we see others through Cléo’s eyes (they seem to be staring at her), we are invited to think. Cléo is model-pretty. The others are... pleasantly ordinary. Do we feel more if a thing of beauty like Cléo were extinguished from this earth? Would it matter less if one of the other, more ordinary people had the cancer instead? Many critics have called Cléo from 5 to 7 an existential film. It is, above all, an experience. A man on the street picks frogs from a barrel and swallows them. Is Cléo a sideshow attraction, too? Is she the man or the frogs, the consumer or the consumed alive?

One of the most discernible aspects of Varda’s work is her empathy towards her characters, even someone as apparently superficial as Cléo. (Looking at the film today, one must remember how much more fearsome cancer was in the 1960s.) In Le Bonheur, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, the cheating husband is treated with as much sympathy as the cheated-upon wife. Visages, Villages (Faces/Places), was one of her last films. Varda and co-director JR tour the countryside in a van with a photo-printing machine, and they make (and put up) giant pictures of miners and farmers and the bell ringer at a bell tower, the “little people” who rarely get to be on billboards. A timid waitress is a little disturbed at the attention she’s getting, thanks to people gawking at her blow-up. Her little boy, though, thinks otherwise. Asked what he feels about his mother’s picture, he beams, “She’s super pretty.”

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 16:23:26 IST

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