Directed by: Agnès Varda
Written by: Agnès Varda
Starring: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blanc
When in a moment where you begin to fear for your life, everything around you comes into focus because suddenly, the threat of no longer existing on this Earth becomes real. In a way, we all know we’re going to die eventually, but the finality of death does not truly hit until you see it right before your eyes. Serving as a self-reflecting journey but also a larger commentary on the physical appearance of women, Cléo from 5 to 7 utilizes its wonderful star in such imaginative ways.
After a recent doctor’s visit Cléo (Corinne Marchand) fears she may be diagnosed with cancer. As she progresses throughout the rest of the day, until she hears the official notification, she begins to contemplate the status of her relationships and what the future fighting off this disease could look like for her.
As the title suggests, the entire magnificent story within this film occurs within two hours of Cléo’s life. It begins with her walking out of the doctor’s office with a sad look on her face, which begins the journey she must take as the finality of life has struck her like never before. This allows her to look both inward and outward with the different relationships in her life. She first meets with her maid Angèle (Dominique Davray) and then heads back to her apartment where she hopes to spend some time with her lover, José (José Luis de Vilallonga). Circumstances do not work out with him as intended, but her music partners arrive to play some songs with her. Initially, it starts out well, but then things get dicey as they begin to make demeaning comments about her talent. This makes Cléo snap and also kickstarts the true purpose of this film.
Cléo takes plenty of pride in the way she looks, but it has always been in the service of others as she hopes to win them over with the beauty she possesses. After the different interactions she has with different characters, it’s made quite clear, she does not display her true self when she puts on this appearance. She puts on extensions to give her hair more volume and dresses in ways they may find arousing as opposed to what she truly wants to have on her body. The attitudes of the people around her, which should be full of support, demonstrates where they stand in her life and how she can do much better. The moment where she snaps arrives because of death coming sooner than anticipated. Why waste time on these people with such limited time on this Earth? It results in one of the more satisfying hair-pulls of all-time and with it we see Cléo begin to reveal her true self. The unraveling occurs little by little and it shows a complete liberation from the standards around her.
The gaze women have upon them for their looks has been so ingrained in our culture, because they have been objectified for so long. It becomes their reality, which makes it obvious why some women would feel insecure about their bodies. Cléo has this unending feeling about her and the film portrays it in such a powerful manner. As Cléo walks the streets in an almost aimless fashion, everyone looks at her as she passes by. Now, it’s not necessarily in the way of lust you may be thinking of, but rather one of disgust. Director Agnès Varda eloquently shows the looks as the camera shifts to the point-of-view of Cléo. These looks have a level of condemnation coming from the random people on the street. The dreariness of it makes it difficult to discern whether these looks come from reality or just how Cléo feels. Rarely does a person not give her some strange look as she walks by them but it shows the glass box she finds herself in and desperately wants to climb out of it.
Typical structures of vanity like mirrors play a major part in the feature as prior to the moment where Cléo decides to not care for her past life, she would stop at several mirrors to check on her looks. It became an obsessive part of her life, as she needed to always have this perfect look about her, but it all changes with her new outlook, as nearly every mirror appears shattered in the final. Broken, as they longer serve as vital a purpose for her, but also through the people that actually help her in life. It makes the scene she shares with Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) so integral to her development. We enter this scene with Dorothée posing nude for some artists and Cléo seems to be perplexed by the confidence and attitude of her friend. Dorothée has reached a point in her life where she has developed her own agency and makes decisions that please her, which Cléo has never truly done. The titular character has kept herself in relationships with people she became dependent on, which stunted her own growth as a person.
With the two-hour time constraint the film has to tell its story, it makes every interaction meaningful. It’s not made clear what will occur by the time 7 PM rolls around, but we know everything will build towards something critical. Throughout the film, we see timestamps of where we are within the timeline and as 7 PM approaches, we must prepare ourselves for whatever will arrive. It says so much about what gets established in this story because we are only present for two hours of this woman’s life yet it feels like we know her and her struggles. Cléo’s story feels so human, which makes it incredibly easy to connect to her on an emotional level.
Through the subtle clothing changes and overall attitude adjustment, Corinne Marchand brilliantly portrays this character to show the severity of her circumstances. Marchand obviously brings her beauty to the role but allows herself to be vulnerable as with the character of Cléo. Much of the work with this role appears in the facial work she must do and it works so well for the internalized nature of this story. She pairs incredibly with the Queen of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda. She does her typical masterful work with this film in the way she tackles the objectification of women but creates the urgency of the circumstances of this story. Frantic at times but overall incredibly composed, she allows the camera to be used as both an ally and an enemy for Cléo. It gives the audience the opportunity to see the reality of how it feels to be constantly looked at and defined by one’s looks. Varda’s film proves to be defiant in this approach and ultimately helps in a long-standing battle between women and the world seeking to objectify them in so many ways.
Incredibly heartfelt as it is potent, Cléo from 5 to 7 proves to be a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling because of the subjects it tackles and the way it emotionally handles it all. The story serves as an act of liberation and freedom from standards no one asked for but this protagonist refuses to let it hold her back. An expertly made film and one where the conclusion feels apt for what the future holds for this character and the new outlook she has on life.