Cleo from 5 to 7 1962
directed and written by Agnes Varda
Corinne Marchand .... Florence, 'Cléo'
Antoine Bourseiller .... Antoine
Dorothée Blank .... Dorothée
Michel Legrand .... Bob, the Pianist
Dominique Davray .... Angèle
José Luis de Villalonga .... The Lover
Cleo de 5 a 7 is the story of a French singer who is waiting to find out the results of a cancer test. It follows her through two hours of her life, through visits to a psychic, friends, her songwriters, the park, and so on, with each scene exposing her sense of despair not only with the possibility of death, but with an unfulfilling life. As a feminist film, it explores how Cleo feels as though she isn’t treated as an adult, as a person, but as an object on display; true her notoriety comes from her singing, but this talent doesn’t gain her respect, only further objectification.
The film opens with her future being read in a cramped apartment. It then follows her into the streets, which are crowded with people. Throughout the film, she seems to be constantly surrounded by people; the claustrophobia lasts until nearly the end of the film, when she visits the park. Once there, she is finally alone, in open spaces, and it is there that she meets Antoine, which I will cover later. It is only by escaping into this open environment and meeting someone who takes her fears seriously does she come to terms with what is happening and have a sense of self, a sense of power.
At any rate, we follow her into a crowded cafeteria. Men stare at her, but they aren’t significant characters in the story. Instead, the main motivators at this point are women—Angele her assistant, the woman cab driver, the clerk in the store. Men are largely absent from this portion of the film, not appearing until the next sequence, when her lover comes to visit. Before that, though, we see her worrying about the disease, and obsessing over her looks. In nearly every scene in the early part of the film, Cleo looks into the mirror to check how she looks. At one point, she says, “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.” Her life is predicated on outward talents and appearance—her singing voice, her looks—but not on who she really is.
She and Angele retreat to her apartment, when her Lover visits. He is ignorant of her condition and treats her like a child. The sense of her being treated as a child is also reflected earlier in the scene, where Angele has to help her get changed; moreover, Cleo has a swing in her apartment, which seems rather child-like to me. With the introduction of the Lover, the male presence is set in the film. After he leaves, her two songwriters visit her. They treat her anxiety as a frivolous thing; instead, they try to make her work on new songs with them. The sense of irony is not lost on the fact that these two men write songs from the point of view of love-struck women who are happy to be subservient to their missing lovers—very much a pop Madame Butterfly, and Cleo finally says she can’t take it anymore.
She gets part way through a song called “Cry of Love”—and here, the film shows her singing, her face lit up and staring straight into the camera, the background black. She can only get halfway through this display when she rebels, calling it a ridiculous song. The spell breaks, and she is no longer an object on display, a pretty bird singing, but a person who is frightened she may die, a person who needs to be taken seriously.
That seems to be the point of the film—that no one will take her fears seriously. When she visits her friend, the nude model (again, woman on display; or is it woman who is unashamed? It is hard to tell), the friend tries treat her fear lightly. Admittedly Cleo is hung up on superstition—broken mirrors, black cats, and Tarot cards seem to point to despair for her, and she’s ready to believe it. However, she puts her faith in these things because she has nothing else. No one treats her as a person, but as a star or a commodity or a sex object. Even her friend is more concerned with her boyfriend than with Cleo.
Finally, she escapes to a park. Cleo is no longer constantly surrounded by people staring at her, taking her fears lightly. She is free to wander around and be herself, something which hasn’t happened before in this film. This is also where she meets Antoine, a soldier on leave. He treats her more as a person, and it is here we learn her real name is Florence; “Cleo” is a stage name meant to conjure up an exotic sexiness. Unlike previous characters, Antoine doesn’t simply council her or speak to her, but lets her speak, lets her express her fears. He doesn’t treat them as frivolous rantings; instead, he offers to accompany her to the hospital. They take the bus across town, but now the sense of claustrophobia from earlier has dissipated, and Cleo/Florence walks freely with Antoine. When they arrive at the hospital and the doctor tells her she needs treatment, one would think she would be distraught; however, she seems almost happy. Why? Because finally someone—Antoine—has taken her seriously.
How is this a feminist film? The narrative deals with being a woman and not being taken seriously; visually, the sense of claustrophobia and the constant reflections of herself in mirrors and windows contribute to the sense of being on display. It subverts the idea of pleasure in watching by making us watch a woman who knows she is being watch, who knows she is on display, that no one takes her seriously, and who finally refuses to go on living this way.