The film is called Cleo From 5 to 7, but it’s actually Cleo From 5 to 6:30 Exactly”
Agnes Varda states with a chuckle. Varda is the Guest Director for the 2013 AFI Fest, so four of her films are being screened at the festival, starting with her most famous film, Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). The woman who has been rightfully called the Godmother of the New Wave practically bounces in her chair, which is surprising for a woman her age. I hope I age half as well. Filmmaking and boundary-breaking agree with her.
Cleo From 5 to 7 takes place over a single afternoon. A young singer (Corinne Marchand) waits for results from her medical exam to tell her whether she has cancer. More surprisingly, the story takes place in real time; starting at 5pm and ending at 6:30pm. The film has the hallmarks of many French New Wave films: the preoccupation with cinematic form, the unflagging coolness that comes with good sunglasses and disaffected youth, the filmic experimentation. Cleo From 5 to 7 is different from Breathless or Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Agnes Varda’s unique voice has been attributed to her gender (the New Wave could be a talented boys club), but she attributes it to her background in art instead of film.
Varda says during the discussion that she purposely watched as few films as possible before becoming a filmmaker. Her purpose was to create something totally new and from scratch. Other New Wave auteurs were film lovers first (think of the fantastic book Hitchcock Truffaut). Varda speaks with the same rapture about Picasso and the artists in other mediums that inspired her. Of specific importance to Cleo From 5 to 7 is a painting by a 16th century German artist named Hans Baldung. In the painting, called The Three Ages Of The Woman and The Death, a young woman gazes into a mirror while a ghastly skeleton whispers into her ear.
Varda observes that the picture seems almost scandalous because beauty and death aren’t supposed to go together. Certainly that’s Cleo’s belief in the film. She worries constantly through the film that illness will ruin her beauty. Like the woman in the painting, Cleo constantly looks at herself, and the many people she meets look at her too. This, Varda states, is her feminist message: “Women become real when they stop looking at themselves and start looking at other people.” Cleo is an object to be stared at. The singer’s moment of revelation happens at 5:45pm, during this haunting song:
Agnes Varda sets the song as a midway point: from 5:45pm on, Cleo actively observes instead of passively being observed. The act of observing and the looming question of death make every moment precious. The challenge of making the story seem to unfold in exactly ninety minutes makes it not only a technical marvel - there are a lot of clocks in frame that need to be set precisely - but also inspires deeper examination of moments that might otherwise be missed. As Agnes Varda winds up the discussion, the bubbly auteur tells the audience that this is the theme of the film: fear gives texture to reality.