Agnès Varda’s Clèo de 5 à 7 (1961) surprised me in multiple ways. The film began with the cliché of a beautiful woman—blonde, buxom, and weak. Her weakness is not only her physical illness, but that she is a fetishized version of femininity. Her hair, her dresses, and her superficiality make Clèo out to be a small child that needs to be reassured constantly instead of an independent woman. Clèo walks around Paris as if it was a masquerade, wearing an identity to please the male gaze. Her artificiality creates an image that is stereotypical as it is one out of insecurity. But by the end of the film I was wrong. Clèo’s insecurity represented the conflict between the body politic and the body natural. Through Varda’s use of Paris as a backdrop for Clèo, her movement through the city actually symbolizes change and transformation. Clèo is able to shed her body politic and gain an identity that is created through her own vision. She wanders through the city as a flâneuse and becomes a “post-feminist” representation of a modern woman who loves.
Clèo, in the opening scene of the film, hurries out of her tarot card reader’s apartment and says to herself in the mirror that, “As long as I am beautiful, I am more alive than others.” What a funny thing to say if you know you have cancer, was my immediate reaction. Though it may not be cancer, Clèo has just received the death card and the card may not mean death but change, aging, and for Clèo, a distortion of her beauty. Change is a concept that she struggles to accept and at the beginning, like an immature child, refuses to acknowledge. The image that Agnès Varda first leaves the audience is one of superficiality. Though, as the film continues, and the scene of anguish is transformed to beautiful black and white Paris and Clèo in happier spirits, it’s hard not to like her. She’s “artsy” and sings. Though she doesn’t write her own lyrics, she tries and has a rather good voice. She’s funny. In one scene, Clèo tries all these hats on just to annoy Angèle and its rather amusing that she picks a furry black one the day summer starts. And she likes cats—kisses her kittens tenderly and even her warm water bag is in the shape of a cat. She becomes a character that we can quickly identify with and feel elementary sentiments for. So how can someone be critical of Clèo? Oh, it’s possible. Varda gives us this sickly-sweet girl who yes has a very “serious profession,” is supported by an older-wealthier gentleman that swoops in and out for kisses, and if this film were not about Clèo waiting for her medical result, her activities around the city would just seem banal and innocuous. Clèo is also a bit absent-minded, “capricious” as she is often called, and hasty.
However, all those seemingly obnoxious characteristics combine to make Clèo an unusual but interesting character and synoptically, a clever film. Clèo has economic mobility so her movement is Paris is not limited in any sense thus we see what Clèo sees. Varda uses cinema verité to capture “real-time” that the steps of Clèo are almost traceable. Her movements around Paris can be followed throughout multiple arrondisements down to the Left Bank. Varda’s reconstitution of a documentary-like narrative creates a story that is full of tension and drama. We anxiously wait for the test results as Clèo does. And it is not just her physical movements that we can follow. Her transformation from a spoiled child to a woman is reflected in her interior dialogue and interactions. The moment Clèo takes off her wig is the moment she takes off the image of fetishized beauty. Everything leading up to Clèo’s change has revolved around her impersonations of femininity. And they are just that, impersonations. Her reflections in the mirror show a woman that is physically beautiful, but underneath, broken. And when the mirror breaks, as it does when she leaves Raoul’s, the broken glass turns into fragments of realization. The mirror breaking is not of bad luck, but it is of Clèo facing her internal demons, her fractures laid bare.
Everything is a spectacle in the beginning instead of flânerie. The flâneur in Charles Baudelaire’s definition (The Painter of Modern Life) is one who observes and walks around au hazard. Clèo cares too much about her beauty to see and observe what is around her. Clèo’s Paris in the first part is all about commodity and assurance of her beauty. After she dismantles the body politic that has affected her, she lets go and in the car with her friend, she is able to observe freely. Her friend tells her to count the pom pom off of the sailors’ hats and she does just that. Clèo is able to observe without any sort of emotional barriers. She has become a flâneuse.
In addition, Antoine, the “talker” who the psychic predicts she will meet at the beginning of the film, is among one of the elements that mark the consecration of her change. Clèo’s openness to Antoine produces a new kind of time in opposition to the “real-time” that Varda structures. It is called “passionate-time” as one of my professors deemed it. Love, boredom, all the emotional states one can achieve before the ending, or the end of “real time.” In the “passionate time,” Clèo is able to get rid of the foreboding shadow of death and just love and be liberated.
Clèo is not the archetype of “the lesser sex” nor is she a feminist. She is a “post-feminist” by her independency and emancipation of the fetishized image at the end of the film. Clèo continues to be a beautiful woman, but a woman created by an image that is natural. She sheds the superficiality and self-absorption to a concept that is all about the other—love. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin, another movie produced during the Nouvelle Vague, there is a scene where Chantal Goya asks Jean Pierre Léaud “What is the center of the world for you?” and he replies, “Love, I suppose.”* Clèo at the end has allowed love to consume her and it doesn’t matter if the cancer will be threatening or not. Her center is no longer her physical beauty but a concept more transcendental and profound.
*(7:15 in the clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jETlH5B0lb8)