The following analysis was written for my “Women as Filmmakers” class…
Cléo de 5 to 7, a 1962 French film directed by Agnès Varda, follows the story of a young pop vocalist named Cléo as she awaits for her medical results. The plot takes place over the duration of two hours (as indicated by the title), which are broken up into small chapters, periodically shown through a timestamp at the bottom of the screen. The film primarily deals with the subjects of mortality and image, and how difficult it is for Cléo to seek the support of her friends during a time when she is getting ready to face a significant change in her life.
The film opens with a bird’s eye view of Cléo’s visit to a fortune teller, where the shot is only restricted to their hands and tarot cards. This is the only scene filmed in color, as the rest of the movie is shown in black and white, suggesting a visual juxtaposition that is common in French New Wave cinema. To culminate her visit, Cléo has her palm read. The fortune teller suddenly falls into a brief silence, leading Cléo to presume her fate: the illness she has is cancer. At that moment, her fear of death starts to grow at a rapid pace. After she leaves the fortune teller in haste, the audience quickly learns that Cléo is very superstitious, which plays a recurring role in the film. Even her maid Angèle feeds off on superstition, telling Cléo to “never wear anything new on a Tuesday” after Cléo buys a black fur-trimmed hat, or to take the next taxicab that doesn’t bear an unlucky number.
Angèle is worried about Cléo, but doesn’t believe she has the fatal illness that Cléo’s making it out to be. Cléo faces more insincerity from her friends after she tells her lover José that she is ill, despite Angèle telling her beforehand that men don’t want to hear such things. José dismisses Cléo’s words by promising to take her on vacation soon. His busy schedule already starts to drag him out the door without so much as a genuine goodbye. Following José’s visit, Cléo’s songwriting team comes by for a rehearsal, but they treat her illness as a joke by pretending to be doctors. Having enough, Cléo takes off her wig and replaces it with the new hat she bought, breaking free from her superstitions—among other things. She leaves everyone at her apartment, and goes out into the streets of Paris by herself.
Cléo stops by a café and plays one of her own singles on the jukebox. Nobody pays attention to it. One woman even regards it as noise. This scene parallels an earlier part of the film where Cléo and Angèle take a taxi back to the apartment, during which Cléo objects to her song playing on the radio and tells the driver she doesn’t want to listen to it. She mentions how the recording sounds awful, which shows a more self-deprecating side of Cléo—an issue that many women struggle with. After Cléo leaves the café, she visits her friend Dorothée, who works as a nude model at a sculpting studio. The camera takes on the perspective of Cléo as she walks around the artists, who each look up and stare at her as she passes by. The audience simultaneously takes the place of Cléo, feeling the gazes that are projected onto her every time she crosses paths with someone. She thinks she is constantly being looked at.
This ties into the mirror motif that is prevalent throughout the movie. After Cléo visits the fortune teller, she looks into a mirror and tells herself, “As long as I am beautiful, I am alive.” The café where she meets Angèle soon thereafter is a stunning visual display of mirrors, and even her one-room apartment has a mirror in each corner. Whenever she looks at her reflection, however, it is often times fragmented or broken. Her superstitious nature emerges as she looks into a broken mirror later on in the film, which she remarks as “an omen of death.” Image becomes a driving factor of the film, as the desire to be young and beautiful forever is shattered when she becomes more aware of her mortality, and the way her friends treat the subject lightly. There is a growing need in Cléo for something deeper than superficiality and the surface image.
Towards the end of the film, Dorothée tells Cléo that her body makes her happy, not proud. The sculptors are “looking at more than just me,” she continues. This brings up a common issue that women face, which is shown through Cléo and her struggles to keep up with the immortality of her “doll-like image.” Society pressures women to constantly worry about their image and turn it into something they can be proud of—something to display for others. There is also a later scene in which Cléo saunters down the steps at a park, singing and putting on a performance as if there is a crowd watching her. However, the camera pans over to show that the park below her is completely empty. There is almost a look of surprise on Cléo’s face when she finds nothing there, but she brushes it off and continues along her way as if nothing has happened.
The film includes another issue relating to women, such as the scene where Cléo exits the hat shop (out of frame), but the lingering image of a mannequin dressed in a wedding gown takes her place. The viewer is instantly reminded of the fortune teller’s words, which told Cléo that she has no future in marrying. It isn’t until the end of the film that Cléo finds sincerity in a stranger by the name of Antoine, who is a soldier on his last day of leave. She meets him at the park, and the two begin a conversation with each other. Antoine talks about how women only love in halves, because they are too afraid to give themselves up. Cléo realizes that she feels the same way, and things start to become clearer for her. It is through Antoine that the audience discovers Cléo’s real name, which is Florence. It’s as if she has been stripped of the identity that she has so carefully built up, and is currently unraveling before our eyes to show her true self. The more she talks to Antoine, the more she starts to let go of the fate and superstition that was firmly instilled in her. When the pair visit the hospital, Cléo eventually runs into her doctor and finds out her results. For the first time, Cléo feels that her fear is gone. “I think I’m happy,” she says. She spends a quiet moment with Antoine, feeling like she has all the time in the world now—a contrast to how the movie is structured in a foreboding countdown format.