About half way through “Cleo from 5 to 7,” so we’ll place her at about 6:00 PM in the movie’s timeline, the singer Cleo is rehearsing in her luxurious, yet empty loft with her composer and her songwriter. They offer comic relief as she claims to feel sick, and they work through a collection of diddys that would delight another audience. She listens in bemusement, and her charm, after lamenting if she’s going to be diagnosed with cancer, after nasal gazing at her own beauty and laying sweet nothings on her bland lover, has almost run out.
But in an instant, the composer begins to play a song called “Cry of Love.” The camera slowly swivels around the piano as Cleo starts to sing. A figurative black curtain drops and Cleo is isolated in her moment of pain and passion. An orchestra swells, and the moment does not show her pretension as earlier, but her utter vulnerability and transformation. This little aria is absolutely haunting, so emotional that she can’t even bring herself to finish.
This might just be one of the finest scenes in all of French New Wave cinema. But it works so perfectly because it catches you off guard, the transformation seems to happen in real-time, and the simple reality of its staging combined with a subtle and noticeable unreality is a true miracle.
“Cleo from 5 to 7” carries through on that sensation throughout its duration. Its director, Agnes Varda, is one of the lesser known members of the French New Wave pantheon, and this is her earliest masterpiece at the height of an era.
It involves the story of Cleo (Corinne Marchand), an up and coming singer who in two hours time will learn whether or not she has cancer. She visits a psychic performing tarot and realizes that she’s doomed, mainly because there is quite literally color in the cards. The film is in black and white, but this opening segment has color in an aerial shot of the tarot cards on a floral pattern that resembles something Wes Anderson might shoot.
“Cleo from 5 to 7” only runs 90 minutes, but for all intensive purposes it takes place in real time. Life seems to be moving quickly, and the various events that occur minute to minute are not so much vignettes but moments out of time. We listen in on a conversation in which a woman will not sleep with her boyfriend who is about to go off and fight in a war. We walk in on the aftermath of a deadly shooting. We watch for a moment as a street performer executes a sickening stunt. And we sit in on a sculpture class using a nude model, all the eyes seemingly watching back as we do.
What do all these images you see and hear on an ordinary day feel like when your mind is elsewhere, possibly lingering on the fate of your own life?
Varda explores this sensation with a feather touch. “Cleo from 5 to 7” is not as ruggedly edited as “Breathless” for instance, but it jumbles tones and conversations with poetic urgency. While in a cab, Cleo goes from sociable to nauseous to deathly quiet as the camera watches, drives and examines. It has a patient and observant quality to everything, but Varda cuts, darts, tracks and zooms with quiet intensity.
Individual freeze frames show photographic perfection, and the way the light consistently flows into the lens as Cleo and a new found friend walk through a park in a long tracking shot is heavenly. But some of these moments happen so quickly you might miss them. They reflect Cleo’s own distant attention span, her tendency to get lost in the clouds and in thoughts of herself, but also her pain in being able to embrace any of these images of beauty at this, her lowest point.
“They look at me for more than my body. They look for a shape, an idea.” Cleo’s nude model friend speaks of her work with poetry in her soul, and it reflects the broader feeling toward the work of the New Wave. Two hours in the life of an individual do not really make a story, but we look for the more surreal, significant moments. We glean feelings, understanding, emotion and solace. “Cleo from 5 to 7” is an essential installment in this collection of films that aim for this high bar.