I know this may be strange, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen Cleo From 5-7 (Agnes Varda, 1962.) In fact this is my first Agnes Varda film.
Maybe I’ve spent too much time concentrating on the Nouvelle Vague group of filmmakers rather then those of the Rive Gauche -a movement which included novelists such as Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, while at the same time producing the seminal Last Year In Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1960).
Although this group may have similarities with the Nouvelle Vague they are distinctly different -the tone and even the style of the films are different. I don’t think it would be unfair to state that, particularly in Varda’s case, the films are lighter and lack the emotional impact of Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard, or Eric Rohmer. Even then, I still think that the Rive Gauche are worth our attention.
The idea of mortality keeps creeping in here. Every time I write something for these pages mortality keeps coming up full on the screen in front of me. I’ve seen this in Please Give (Nichole Holocener, 2010) and in Valhalla Rising (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2009), and now it appears once again in Cleo From 5-7.
However, in Varda’s film the theme of mortality is used a little differently from the other two films. Here we find a fragile kind of mortality reflected through the character of Cleo (Corinne Marchard). This mortality comes through this character’s youthful beauty. It is opaque, unseen -just there below the flesh, built into Cleo as a mechanism of life. Regardless of where she wanders around the streets of Paris in a taxi the mortality of her human condition will always travel with her.
It does not matter if her medical tests are negative or positive, the result will still not change the fact that she is a living human being who must face the thought that one day she may be no more.
Life, like beauty, is fragile -it is a universal and we cannot change this condition of our existence. The flower of youth will always give way to the bare bones of the facts of life. Our fate can be nothing less.
Fate is an interesting word. I think it can conjure up many connotations, but as far as this word is concerned in relation to Varda’s film, it brings into life the tarot which is read to Cleo at the beginning of the film, as well as some of the beliefs held by some of the other characters in the film.
In this film mortality and fate is connected to the nature of superstitious belief. Meaning that if Cleo acts or wears something that will bring her back luck, including the reading of the tarot, then this will affect her fate and bring her mortality to the fore.
Because of this Cleo should not act in a way that would bring on her condition as a human being, which in the end would bring her closer to the point of having to face up to that mortality. In another way all this superstition shows how the human mind is susceptible to these continuous beliefs -even though we live in a modern age. They tend to be tightly bound in with human fate and eventually its own mortality. A theme which has been with us since the dawn of time.
One of the most delightful things about Cleo 5-7 is its photography. Although filmed by three separate cinematographers, the film, especially in its street scenes of Paris as Cleo drives through in a taxi or walks the pavements of the boulevard, has the quality of a still photographer’s take on life. The shots are rough and ready and natural. Life served up in a montage of rawness which removes the film from the studio.
The photography of this film reminded me of the images of Robert Doisneau, a photographer who would prowl the streets of the city with a Leica in hand ready to jump on any image that passed through the view finder.
Reminding us that even if we are surrounded by the mass of people in the city we still find ourselves alone with our thoughts. It is within this mass that Cleo finds herself alone with her thoughts and superstitions.
Cleo 5-7 is a film worth tracking down and taking a look at if you have the time. For the life of me I still cannot work out why I had never seen it or any other of Varda’s films -maybe she was just one film maker that got away from me and was buried underneath a whole other set of films and images.
But now we’ve met I can only invite some more of Varda’s films into my film-watching life.