Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cleo From 5 to 7

Cleo From 5 to 7 is different from any of the films we've seen so far. First of all it's directed by Agnes Varda, the lone female director in the boy's club of the nouvelle vague. It comes as little surprise then that the protagonist of the film is also a woman. Ironically though she appears on the surface to be just as vapid and flaky as the women in the other films we've seen. It's hard to tell at first whether Varda wants us to sympathize with Cleo or not. Most of her behavior in the film is pretty much unlikeable from the very beginning. In the beginning of the film, we see her getting her tarot cards read. The fortune teller sees an illness in her future, and Cleo goes to pieces. She breaks down crying, fearing that she is going to die. But then as she leaves the fortune teller's apartment, she looks at herself in the mirror and says that she has her beauty, and as long as she is beautiful she is alive. Further living up to the stereotype of a vapid, materialistic blonde, she goes shopping and buys a new hat to cheer herself up. In the cab ride home from shopping with her assistant the radio broadcast reports on the latest casualties in the Algerian war while she prattles on about herself. She also has contempt for the cabdriver, perhaps feeling a sense of entitlement as a diva-esque pop singer over a lowly, working class woman. The cab driver isn't the only person she condescends to. There is a subtle division between her and her assistant as well. Her assistant always addresses Cleo in the formal "vous" form whereas Cleo addresses her with the informal "tu" form. Children usually address adults in the "vous" form and vice versa, so this subtle difference in language suggests Cleo is above (or, at least fancies herself above) her assistant. She also acts like a diva when her songwriters show up for a rehearsal. She complains that the songs are too difficult to learn, and how nobody loves her and just wants to exploit her for her voice. However, I think that Cleo is ultimately redeemed through her meeting with Antoine, the soldier on leave from the Algerian war that she meets in the park. Before meeting him she is at a café and she seems to start to have an existential crisis. I'm sure it's not by coincidence that the café she goes to is Le Dôme, a café frequented by Sartre and other existential intellectuals. She plays one of her records on the jukebox and gauges the reaction of the crowd, which keeps going about their business like they were before her record started. Cleo begins to realize that the world does not revolve around her like she imagines it does, that she is just another person like anyone else. When she goes to the park and meets Antoine, she becomes even more human. At first she dismisses him and wants to be left alone, but his persistence eventually finds a chink in her armor and she becomes more vulnerable and human. We learn that her real name isn't Cleo but Florence. Through Antoine, we (or at least I) are able to feel empathy for her as a fellow human who is suffering through a disease and fears for her life.

Varda shows some amazing innovation in this film that rightly places her in the canon of the nouvelle vague along such names as Godard and Truffaut. There is one of my favorite long takes ever in the scene where Cleo is learning a new song with her lyric and music writers that signifies the isolation that Cleo feels. The camera travels slowly across the room in an arc, showing first all three characters but then slowly zooming in on just Cleo, who is standing in front of a black curtain. The camera moves in so that all we see is a medium close up of Cleo with the black curtain behind her. Cleo looks right into the camera while singing a song about dying of loneliness after being without her lover. While the song starts out with just the diegetic accompaniment of the piano, it is eventually replaced by a dynamic, orchestral string arrangement. As the music swells Cleo seems to be lost in the song. The effect is mesmerizing and is so great that the viewer gets caught up in the moment as well, and forgets (like Cleo seems to) that she is in her apartment. It instead seems like she is giving a performance in a concert hall, but then the song ends and the camera abruptly pulls back and thrusts the viewer (and Cleo) back into reality, showing us that she is indeed just in her apartment singing to an audience of three instead of a full house at a grand concert hall. There is also an incredible use of non-continuous editing in the scene where she leaves the rehearsal in her apartment and goes to the café. As she walks down the street and looks at the people looking back at her in a series of reverse shots, there are a series of shots inserted of people not on the street. We see her assistant sitting in her apartment, the songwriter sitting at his piano, patrons from the café she just left, and the man swallowing frogs on the street that walked past earlier. By showing these people in a completely different space than the one Cleo is presently occupying, it gives us an insight to her existential crisis where she is realizing that these people in fact have lives outside of the relationship to her.

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