Cléo de 5 à 7
With its influence far from esoteric, the French New Wave is what we recognise today as iconoclastic, fashionable filmmaking. It is the backbone of the artistic mainstream: of the popular, noir-inspired, criminally 'cool' and culturally perceptive. In a near-perfect balance with its technical dexterity, the same movement is responsible for some of the most honest and personal narratives to ever grace the medium of cinema. According to the French New Wave, and its anchorage in artistic modernism, truth emerges most affectingly from a blend of semiotic indulgence and heightened subjectivity, and Agnès Vardas' Cléo de 5 à 7 is absolutely at the vanguard.
Agnès Varda is the very essence of the French New Wave. There is no way to overstate the nuance of her creativity; a flair for earnest communication teemed with objective cinematic success. To simplify my gratitude for the masterwork that is Cléo de 5 à 7 to consumptive, fleeting adoration, to that which exclusively occupies the duration of the film, would be a disservice to Varda's efficacy at filmmaking, and to my own enrichment of her storytelling. During my first encounter with Cléo, I was wholly aware of how difficult it would be to orient an objective analysis of her filmmaking, one abstracted from its epiphanic personal resonance. Tethered to the all-too-recognisable subjectivity of Cléo, though culturally separated by sixty years, I became aware of the prelinguistic transcendence of Varda’s filmmaking, that which is not only characteristic of the political New Wave, but far more mystifying than categorisation can possibly recognise.
In Cléo de 5 à 7, the beautiful, popular singer, Cléo, is confronted with her mortality. In the real-time duration of the film, she awaits the results of a biopsy which will determine whether or not she has cancer, and as she waits, anticipating the worst, she traverses various districts of Paris, colliding with other micro-climates of subjective experience which she absorbs into her own. Varda is a master at creating worlds of rich, social symbiosis; scenes are crowded spaces, conversations overlap and cut into each other. Thus although Cléo de 5 à 7 grapples with the most fundamentally singular concept, mortality, Varda never severs us, or Cléo, from the crowd. And this sense of urban symbiosis, that which is entirely modernist, is absolutely vital to the emotionality of the narrative.
In Cléo, control over health and fortune is all an illusion. And as terrifying as this may be, Varda accepts this reality. She embraces the ways in which life can spin us out of control, proposing that there is vitality to be felt in the act of spinning.
I have never been one to sit comfortably with this lack of control. Separate to my enjoyment of this category, my personal apprehension despises any art which nihilistically claims ‘whatever happens, happens.’ Though this is the assertion of many films, this is not the message of Cléo de 5 à 7. Varda does not deny that life is riddled with melancholy, mystery, and pain, rather, she proposes that this can all be endured if we look beyond ourselves; if we see ourselves in others, objects, nature, everything and anything to which we can attach our subjectivity. And while this empathy with our surroundings cannot render us invincible, it will soften us. It will shed light on the beauty and the tenderness of life as it unfolds and dizzies us.
While I am a great admirer of Agnès Varda, I resisted this film for years. This is only because I, much like Cléo, suffer from hypochondria. I routinely avoid any film that deals with illness and mortality, with the expectation that art tends to favour tragedy over vigour. I was tentative that seeing this film would unfurl my own personal anxieties. In a way, I was right: I dreaded Cléo’s result. But this was an experience I didn’t know I needed. As Cléo found herself distracted and enamoured with other people, I began to feel a wave of calm. For her, and for myself.
There is much to be said for the critical achievements of Cléo de 5 à 7; there are moments of dazzling musicality in abundance; it is reflexive and self-aware, paying homage to the New Wave with memorable cameos from Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. But what is most striking about this wonderful film is how attuned it is to the human experience. If Agnès Varda is the soul of the French New Wave, as Roger Ebert has rightfully claimed, then Cléo is certainly its heart.
For a film that explores our natural disposition to thanatophobia, Cléo bursts with life. It is a serious and whimsical abandonment: of control, grief, anxiety. It proposes that the little we can control, the beauty of things, how we see others and ourselves, our empathy, our art, they are everything; they are the language of our being.
Cléo de 5 à 7 is an embrace with our frail mortality, one that should cheer us all.