This column is an experiment in writing about film: what if, instead of freely choosing which parts of the film to address, I select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case and for future columns, the 10-minute, 40-minute, and 70-minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as a guide to writing about the film, keeping the commentary as close to possible to the frames themselves? No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes. Constraint as a form of freedom. Feel free to pick apart the frames even further in the comments.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, dir. Agnès Varda)
Cléo awaits test results from a hospital. Having just finished visiting a tarot card reader — in the only color sequence in the film — she has come to believe that her illness is terminal, and that she has a very short time to live. The camera follows her throughout the day in something that approximates real time.
This happens to be one of the more remarkable scenes in the film, not only in terms of visuals, but in terms of sound design (which is why, if you have not seen it, you must watch this film). Cléo has met her friend Angèle (Dominique Davray) at a café, who sits beside her in a booth just off screen left. While Angèle is talking non-stop to two men, Cléo is half-lost in her own thoughts, and half-listening to the conversation between the gloomy couple behind her. The man has just asked the woman why, when he stays over at her place, he has to leave early in the morning rather than spend the entire night:
Man: Either I sleep with you…
Woman: Don’t then.
Man: Are you joking?
Woman: I’m tired of arguing too. I just want to sleep.
Man: I have my pride. You’ll come running.
The man then stands up and walks out. Throughout, there have been competing, overlapping soundtracks: the conversation between the man and the woman; the conversation between Angèle and the men (at the same volume, but not translated on the screen), the sound of other conversations and the clattering of dishes in the café, and the outside noises of traffic.
This, in conjunction with the composition of the shot, suggests a sort of choreographed anarchy. At first glance, it appears as if the screen is divided into two frames with Cléo occupying the smaller quadrant. But she is sitting in a booth with a glass back, whose sharp vertical line isolates her from the conversation taking place behind her left shoulder. There is another mirror in the background, casting a double image of the woman working behind the counter. There is a confusion and proliferation of images: no matter how serious Cléo’s condition, no matter how deep her self-pity, there is a world that continues swirling and changing around her, oblivious to her inner turmoil.
Cléo, rehearsing with her songwriters, breaks down and weeps after singing a dramatic, mournful song:
Cléo: It’s too much. I can’t go on. It’s horrible.
Angèle: She’s tired. We shouldn’t use the word “despair” [in the lyrics].
And then, moments later:
Cléo: What’s a song? How long can it last?
This is a tricky moment to decipher, and one of the stranger and more beautifully contradictory dimensions of the film. Are we to see Cléo as a spoiled pop star, or as a woman coming to terms with the possibility of her own mortality in almost philosophical terms, or both? And even beyond that, we could easily replace the word “film” for “song” in the line just quoted, and see how the very film we are watching comments on its own fleeting importance.
The shot is as artificial and overly-dramatized as the song Cléo has just been singing. Her head cast down at the piano’s edge, Cléo grasps the music as her composers ignore her feelings and chatter on about the relative merits of the song itself. To them, Cléo is not much more than a vehicle for their songs, a “star” to give voice to their music and lyrics. We see Cléo’s white gown against the black drapes. The white sheet music against the black piano. Angèle’s black hair against the white window.
This is from one of the most quiet sequences of the film. Cléo has been walking through a park, at first singing to herself and performing for the camera, then walking quietly, the only sounds her footsteps and birds chirping and the wind rustling through the tree branches and, at the moment of this frame, the sound of water. The frame divided up by the massive black tree trunks, Cléo gazes into the water. Behind her, frame left, a man has just appeared, and is laying his jacket across a fence rail. He will approach her in a few seconds and ask her, “Like the noise of the water?”
But now, in this frame, Cléo is locked in a tangle of controlled nature: this suits her personality perfectly, as the sudden realization of her mortality has freed her to roam, but within limits. Her foray into nature is as ordered as her life. Throughout, Varda has made sure that we see Cléo from multiple visual perspectives: sometimes from a distance, almost in surveillance-like shots; sometimes close up, where we can observe every emotion in her face; sometimes even from her own point-of-view, as the camera becomes her eyes as she walks.
Now, here, God’s lonely woman, experiencing life for a brief time in the belief that she will die soon. Suddenly — and for a short time — the world is stripped of its ideology and Cléo is awakened, witnessing and hearing small parts of the world that were always present but lost to her amidst the noise of her life. In its strongest, strangest moments, Cléo from 5 to 7 awakens us, too.