Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 chronicles the two hours leading up to the disclosure of a possibly life-changing medical test result in the life of Cléo, née Florence, a young, glamorous, somewhat self-absorbed and highly superstitious Parisian pop singer who has been informed by a fortune teller that she may encounter cancer and death in the near future. From an outsider’s standpoint, Cléo seems to have it all: talent, money, fame, style, beauty, fans who adore her and men who fawn over her. She recognizes her own beauty and allure as a powerful tool with which she can manipulate others—yet her ultimate inability to comfortably be alone thwarts her in her efforts to separate herself from her entourage. Through her filmic narrative Varda cracks Cléo’s seemingly flawless façade to reveal the vulnerabilities and insecurities of the creature beneath, raising questions of perception and of the relation of the individual to the city.
Cléo is introduced to us as a spontaneous free spirit, with an almost childlike naiveté that must be indulged by Angèle, who becomes her mother figure. As the film progresses, we are met with Cléo’s utter dependence upon others— most specifically Angèle—to dress her, feed her, accompany her, remind her of her daily responsibilities, organize her schedule—and the people she surrounds herself with enable this dependence, catering to her every need. During the scene in the hat shop, Cléo takes on the role of a mischievous, demanding yet lovable child in a candy store, constantly being told “no” by Angèle each time she picks up an “unsuitable” hat. When she finally decides upon a black hat, she is told that she may not wear it out of the store, as, according to superstition, “nothing new must be worn on Tuesdays.” Here Angèle facilitates Cléo’s reliance upon her, insisting that she may not even carry the new hat herself, as it may bring bad luck. Varda films the entire sequence with special attention to the mirrors that surround Cléo as she shops for hats—they reflect off one another, creating a kaleidoscopic effect and presenting us with multiple images of Cléo that suggest the multiple façades she will take on as the film progresses.
A few scenes later, we return to Cléo’s home—a luxurious escape from the city, complete with all the necessary accoutrements to keep Cléo entertained and occupied. Two playful kittens bat at each other on the plush carpet, Angèle brings tea on a silver tray and helps her into her almost laughably fluffy feathered dressing gown as she “stretches” herself on a bar designed for that purpose. She is completely cared for—we find ourselves wondering whether she would be able to function without the aid of Angèle, whether she would be able to receive her own callers or make her own tea.
The first pivotal moment in the trajectory of Cléo’s multiple transformations occurs when her songwriters arrive at her home with a selection of new songs—one in particular that moves her to an incredible extent. As she sings, her isolation intensifies. Varda zooms in on her face, wrought with emotion, against a solid black background. We can feel her pain, her solitude. As the song finishes, Varda zooms out quickly; the rest of the room and the others enter the shot and we are jarringly placed back into reality. Here the viewer is met with the same experience as Cléo herself—she is stunned at having been so emotionally exposed by the song lyrics, then shoved abruptly back into her world of appearances as the song ends. The moment her vulnerability begins to show, she becomes angry and unreasonable, rejecting her songwriters and Angèle for having forced her to feel and abruptly taking to the streets of Paris in an unfounded attempt at flânerie. She removes her perfectly-coiffed blonde wig to reveal her natural hair (which, ironically, remains just as blonde and nearly as coiffed), donning black and in defiance of the superstition she once swore by. She is defiant, empowered— she removes the mask of perfection to become an anonymous member of the crowd. As she exits her home, Varda zooms in on a sign reading “Good Health” Health Food, subtly reminding us of Cléo’s illness and impending doom. Next, we are met with the unsettling sight of a man consuming live frogs on the street. Here Varda displaces Cléo’s plush life of taxis, spacious apartments and recording studios, situating her abruptly within the realm of the crowd in such a way that she is confronted almost immediately with the inevitably vulgar aspects of the city. This scene calls to mind Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life: Varda suggests Cléo’s realization that in order to be recognized within a crowd, one must draw attention to oneself, sometimes in bizarre and grotesque manners, just as Simmel suggests that in order to individualize oneself within the realm of a city, one subconsciously develops significant idiosyncrasies in terms of physical appearance and mental attitude.
Cléo is not, by any means, a flâneuse by the definition of Baudelaire, Benjamin, Aragon or Hemingway. Much like Sasha in Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight, she is anything but comfortable on her own amongst the crowd—used to being escorted, whether by a male suitor or by the doting Angèle, she bristles instinctively as she walks through throngs of people on the Paris sidewalks, fearing that she stands out, that everyone is staring at her. As Cléo walks down the street, Varda jump-cuts between lecherous workmen chewing on cigars, middle-aged women pursing their lips in disapproval, children staring unabashedly, alternating these shots with flashbacks to images from Cléo’s own life, which suggest the difficulty she faces in mingling her own personal existence with that of the crowd. Cléo’s pace quickens—she is an outsider; her paranoia and discomfort tangible. Later, as she speaks to her friend, an artist’s model, about her career, Cléo admits her fear of imperfection—“people might see a flaw.” Varda again emphasizes a distinct dichotomy between Cléo’s fear of the crowd and the safety she feels in enclosed, solitary areas, jump-cutting between the anonymous faces of staring strangers on the street as she waits alone in her friend’s convertible, and later visually underscoring the “safe” separation between Cléo and “the masses” with wide-angle shots of her view from inside the taxicab. She is guarded, shielded from everything—until she steps out into the park, wanders past the playing children and is ultimately confronted again by an intense solitude. She challenges this solitude, flouncing prettily down the stairs while singing—and then, finally, shatters the separation she has built up between herself and the crowd in allowing a strange man, Antoine, into her life. Cléo has undergone a significant transformation throughout the course of the film—she finally allows herself to become vulnerable, to let someone in (perhaps due to the fact that she knows he will be leaving in a matter of days to go back to the army) and to reveal her true self. Varda’s ending is left open to interpretation, as it must be noted that the film clocks in at an hour and thirty minutes—thus technically it should be called Cléo de 5 à 6:30—leaving us room to speculate upon what might occur during those last thirty minutes. With Antoine, though, she confronts her fears, finally acknowledging the reality of her dire illness without succumbing to its implications—and she is able, finally, to mingle with the masses and to open herself to love.