Courtesy of Agnès Varda / MoMA
Cleo from 5 to 7, a 1962 French New Wave film directed by Agnès Varda, follows the life of Cleo, a beautiful young singer, as she wanders through the city while grappling with her recent cancer diagnosis. Despite some critiques that Varda propagates the mystification of womanhood in film, Cleo from 5 to 7 successfully questions the role of a woman both narratively and formally through self-reflexive cinematic language. It also represents the new politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema — characteristics of the French Nouvelle Vague or French New Wave — that feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey propose as a solution for the cinema composed solely of visual pleasure and spectacle. Varda, in a series of striking cinematic moments, addresses the realms in which women are stereotyped with great reflexivity: Beauty, fashion, love, insecurity, the sexuality of the body and so on.
In one such moment, after panicking at her tarot card fortune, Cleo stares at herself in the mirror. Instead of a single image, she stares at infinite images of herself through the mirror placed behind her. She reminds herself that even though she is dying, she is still beautiful, and as long as she’s beautiful, she is more alive than other girls. By coupling this line of dialogue and this composition, Cleo presents how women are fragmented when they are subjected by, and when they subject themselves to, the male gaze.
In another moment, after drinking a cup of coffee in a café where people are talking over each other — reducing the value and individuality of the customers — Cleo enters a hat shop in which she expresses that trying things on makes her feel marvelous. The camera follows Cleo in her complex dance, as if to avoid being reflected by a dozen mirrors. This self-reflexivity of cinema — How did they do that? How is the camera not showing? — coupled with the desire to dress fashionably again questions the myth that women are inherently attached to fashion and material things in order to please others.
When Cleo and her lover arrive at her house, Cleo is reminded by Angela, Cleo’s maid, that Cleo must not mention her illness because men do not like it. When Cleo and her lover exchange hushed words and caresses, the camera is always distant, taken from a long shot. Suddenly, a sappy and cliché romantic melody starts playing as the first instance of non-diegetic sound in the whole film. This distance, along with the cliché music, prevents us from empathizing with the lovers’ feelings, questioning the usual arcs of heterosexual romance portrayed in Hollywood cinema.
After the scene with Cleo’s lover, her songwriter and pianist arrive. Even though she expresses how much she is suffering because of the instability of her life, they dismiss her insecurities as simply her desire to be looked at and to be spoiled. As Cleo sings the silly melody of the femme fatale, the camera swings with the beat of the music, an over-the-top cinematic choice to make us aware of the fakeness of the image of the femme fatale. However, as Cleo sings “Sans toi”, a song that more accurately reflects her insecurities and pain, she stares at the camera, directly into the audience. By gazing at us, we are forced to look at her as a person and not as a spectacle.
Later, in a fit of despair, Cleo takes off her wig and starts walking down the streets of Paris until she finds her friend Dorothée and asks her if she feels alright being a nude model. Her friend answers that her spectators are not really looking at her, but rather only at a body and their ideas of what a female body looks like. With this dialogue, Cleo from 5 to 7 presents a more direct reflexivity, implying that when we, as the audience, look at a woman onscreen, we are not really looking at her but are merely using her body for our own visual pleasure.
Cleo’s promenade through Paris sets a change in the film’s reflexivity; it becomes less complex, as exemplified in Dorothée’s case, and gives preference to Cleo’s subjectivity. The camera takes her point of view as she watches the people in the café and in the streets, making her now the subject instead of the object of the gaze. Cleo now starts behaving the way that she wants to: She sings and dances when nobody is looking at her, enjoying her body for her own sake. She admits that her real name is Florence, rejecting the celebrity construct that she had been portraying, and flirts with a stranger who is also the only person who ever took her worries seriously, providing us with a final non-sexist view of manhood.
Ultimately, Cleo is presented as someone completely different from the stereotypical Hollywood woman, yet she does not create a typically problematic female/male dichotomy because she does not behave like the stereotypical Hollywood man either. However, it is worth mentioning that even though Varda represents Cleo differently from Hollywood’s usual representations of women, this representation does not mystify what a woman is because this depiction does not claim to be the definition of womanhood. It is simply one perspective of a woman in a specific time span, of Cleo from 5 to 7.
Kenya Vázquez is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]