Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cleo From 5 to 7

C'est la Semaine de la Nouvelle Vague française! Toute la semaine, nous allons voir des films de cette période révolutionnaire et les plus influents dans l'histoire de certains de ses plus grands réalisateurs.

seen online via YouTube

One reason why I like movies in general is that they provide an opportunity to see other places, both around the country and around the world. Cleo From 5 to 7 is practically a tourist's guide to Paris, even if it is the Paris of the 60s. Director Agnes Varda takes you all around the city in this real-time film, all through its streets, restaurants, apartments, and parks. In talking about Bob le Flambeur on Monday, I mentioned how director Jean-Pierre Melville was among the first French directors to shoot on location. Well, that turned out to be one of the defining characteristics of the movement, though a lot of the time it was simply cheaper to shoot that way.

In the movie, Cleo's a pop singer who has been diagnosed with cancer, and she spends most of the film trying to either forget about it or to come to terms with it before she has to go back to the doctor for an official confirmation. It all takes place in one afternoon, and we see her hanging out with her maid, her boyfriend, her songwriters, and ultimately, a soldier she meets in a park. Story-wise, it's paper thin. It's basically a character study, and Cleo is, by turns, petulant, hysterical, frivolous, frightened, and contemplative - but learning you probably have a terminal disease will do that to you.

Cleo is a well-crafted movie. One gets the impression that Varda was willing to try different things, and for the most part, they work. The opening credits scene is set in a room where a fortune teller is reading tarot cards for our heroine, and Varda does a curious thing: the shots of the cards on the table are in color, but only those shots - the rest of the movie is in black and white. The fortune that Cleo receives sets the tone for the rest of the movie, so it's an important scene, but I found the alternating color and B&W gimmicky.

Much more impressive was the camerawork and editing. The street scenes are impressive in themselves, but I also get the impression Varda's cinematography and editing was used to convey emotion in places. For instance, in the scene with the songwriters, at one point the camera sways back and forth from them to Cleo as they sing, which was amusing.

So what do we know about Varda? Well, while she broke through around the same period as the French New Wave, the history books place her as part of an alternate group called the Left Bank (left as in politics) that were characterized as more Bohemian and experimental. Still, the Left Bank often collaborated with the FNW group, and they were endorsed by the seminal FNW magazine Cahiers du Cinema (which we'll talk about later this week). Varda's filmmaker husband Jacques Demy was also considered part of the Left Bank.

Cleo was Varda's breakthrough hit, and she even got Jean-Luc Godard to make a cameo appearance in it. He's part of a silent short film that Cleo watches at one point. Varda's first husband, Antoine Bourseiller, also appears as the soldier. Varda's still around; her last film was in 2008.

Auparavant, dans la Semaine de Nouvelle Vague française:


  1. I've never heard of the Left Bank group. It makes me want to search out other filmmakers who fell under that banner. It reminds me a bit of the New Wave, but I can see why they made a distinction.

  2. I've been getting most of my info from this website:

  3. This one very quickly became one of my very favorite New Wave films (although I guess I'm mislabeling it as such). I loved the opening scene, and IIRC, the Tarot cards even tell the story of what's going to play out in the rest of the movie, which is a bold move.

    My favorite scene other than the opening was the random breakaway to a Harold Lloyd-esque silent comedy short mid-film, starring no less than Jean-Luc Godard.

  4. I forgot that part about the Tarot cards.


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