cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
The dissociative act of looking is a practice in human perception whereby we forget ourselves. Agnes Varda brings the act of leaving oneself behind to life in various ways in Cleo from 5 to 7. Facing death, Cleo seems to wonder the existential question of whether or not she has lived at all. Has she simply lived as the image of herself? Has she looked through her own eyes? Or has she only seen life through the prism of iconography? Cleo begins to rearrange her own icon in her own eyes as well as break down her own view of others as icons. What Varda's camera tells us, and what the long, unbroken takes come to signify as the film progresses, are the multiple mental self-images and mind sets that we volley amongst in any given day, here heightened by a tense couple of hours as Cleo waits to hear the results of her medical test. Cleo experiences moments of self-less transcendence through physical transformation, gazing at herself in a mirror while trying on different hats to change her appearance. Varda layers multiple images here through reflection in the windows and mirrors all around her. As Varda's camera floats alongside her taxi or with her down the street, we see her point of view, through her eyes. Do the men who gawk at her as she walks down the street forget themselves for a moment? Do they cause Cleo to reflexively become more self conscious? Between the hours of 5 and 7, Cleo experiences life in various mental states, brought on by singing, watching, and finally through connecting.
Death only serves to enhance one's iconography, Cleo even remarks that streets should be named after the living and the name should be changed when the person dies. In a society of spectacle, of looking and being looked at, the gaze can be the dominant form of interaction. Varda is integral in this ear whereby cinema came to know itself. Through the film medium, through watching and leaving our identity behind as we become immersed in the world in front of us, we come to moments of clarity. For Cleo, such moments draw her from her anxieties and free her from the material concern for her body's death. So multi-layered is Varda's cinematic essay here that we are swept through feminist critiques of the male gaze and its effect on females, existential musings on our own gaze and our own self-image that rap our perception, as well as mystical storytelling of the unseen forces that affect our existence. Cleo begins by consulting a medium who reads the tarot to tell her, faster than the scientific test, what is really happening to her body. Varda tests our own perceptions by conferring on her audience the psychic's diagnosis, while leaving Cleo in the dark. The tarot, apparently, spells her doom, the doctor tells her that she will survive and not to worry, the truth of these two predictions is never rectified as the film ends with a mystery about Cleo's ultimate resolution. What Varda has done is not to remove the cinematic element of identification, as many of her nouvelle vague contemporaries attempted to do, but to cause the character that we identify with to come to the zen conclusion that the results of the test don't matter and that life hinges more on the moments we live, not the ones we don't, etc. Varda's use of time here is what's really interesting. The film is meant to take place in real time, though Cleo experiences the kind of transformation in attitude that would normally be shown over a longer stretch of time. It's to Varda's, and the film's, credit that time is utilized like this, however, as the multiple self-images that live in synchronicity is at the thematic center. The act of seeing herself and imagining the positive attention from others is pleasing, far more pleasing than actually being looked at by others as it is a moment of veritas, not imagination. The act of singing is freeing for Cleo, though not hearing the recording of herself on the radio, again, because to hear it is to be forced to face the truth of the situation. Here, the film can be read another way, with the denial of self-image actually being an avoidant evasion of truth. Whereas the soldier she encounters at the end of the film is going back to the war, as is his duty, Cleo avoids at all cost coming face to face with anything unpleasant. Varda's camera moves effortlessly through long, uncut takes, allowing us to witness change as it occurs. Time is almost stationary in Cleo form 5 to 7, as the director has no manipulative control over it. Moving the camera into a black space as Cleo sings, a tear rolls down from her eyes, she is somewhere else while Michel Legrand's score takes us away. These constant transformations and evasions add up to a film that is constantly in flux. Varda seems to posit that this is the natural human mental state, always trying on new ways of being, wearing new hats.
Cleo eventually resigns to hearing the results of test later, even the next day, rather than wait for them in suspense. She elects to spend quality time with the stranger she's met, somehow it seems more pressing. Varda leads us through a journey of self-obsession. The obsession with the image of the self, both toward others as well as inwardly. She also leads us on a journey of complete out-of-body experiences whereby the human consciousness is able to forget the material and become free. When Cleo finally rests and connects, among the trees, with another individual who is perhaps as lost as she is, she finds respite from all her concerns. Varda has created a journey through cinematic reinvention, through the use of camera, actors and script in a different manner. Varda's formal experimentation lead us to a place of complete silence, the quieting of our own fears and concerns as we witness her free cinema, her pure cinema. Above all, the idea of 'the moment' is captured. We are uncertain about the future. We are uncertain about who Cleo is. We are uncertain about who we are. We do not know what will happen and perhaps we'll never find out. Varda communicates the feeling of a fleeting instant within the human experience. She has captured what we feel like in daily existence. She has reflected life back to us, and she has spoken to the eyes through their own language.