The Evolution of a Flâneuse

In the film Cléo 5 et 7, directed by Agnès Varda, the viewer is presented a narrative depiction of Cléo, a woman who uses fame to conceal internal insecurity with vanity and superficiality. Her world of glamour is disrupted by premonition of an incurable illness, the anticipation of the medical test result to confirm the fortune tellers prediction, drives Cléo to explore emotional depths to which she initially seemed incapable. Cléo moves throughout the city of Paris initially as a notable spectacle, transforming into an idealized spectator as she, through capricious upheaval, evolves into an unconstrained woman capable of love.

In the opening scenes of the film, Cléo is presented as a feminine persona heavily preoccupied with her own situation, emotions, and appearance. Upon leaving the tarot card readers building, Cléo gazes into a mirror, and vainly thinks to herself, “As long as I am beautiful, I am more alive than others.” Through this inner dialogue, it is apparent that Cléo believes that the preservation of her beauty will be her escape from the detrimental reality of her cancer.

Because of Cléo’s fame and conspicuous appearance, she is the subject at which many people gaze. Cléo personally, seems to have an all-inclusive view of only one subject – herself.  This is initially evident when she makes a dramatic scene when explaining the tarot card readers’ prediction to Angèle. She turns around and watches herself in the mirror as the tears well in her eyes and stream down her face. This “little girl” behavior is positively reinforced as it attracts café employees who rush over and inquire as to how they can be of her assistance.

The audience comes to a realization of the height of Cléo’s fame when she is at the hat shop. The shop lady exclaims, “Its her! Its you! Oh miss, I just love your voice. I never thought I’d meet you. Could miss sign a photo for our shop?” evidencing the awed manner in which people interact with Cléo. In the hat store, Cléo ostentatiously tries on items, which elicits the sales woman make comments on her pretty appearance. Cléo gets a trill from trying on hats because she knows that wearing such an elaborate item will make her a spectacle. Because her goal is remain the subject of the gaze, she wants to wear an item that is outlandish, like a fur hat in the summer, to differentiate herself, and thereby draw attention from the crowd. Everyone seems to be crazy about Cléo, even those with whom she has personal relationships, one of her songwriters proclaims, “Cléopatra I worship you!”.  The infatuation Cléo garners is not based on any substantial qualities, allowing interest for her to depletes rapidly. This complex is evident in Cléo’s relationship with José who, “adores” her, but does not make an effort to spend any time with her. Cleo begins to recognize these relationships as negative influences and alters them.

In the initial scene of the film, the tarot card reader predicts a “total transformation” in Cléo’s future. However, instead of this transformation being a physical deterioration of health, it is the transformation of Cléo’s perspective. The film reaches the emotional climax during the rehearsal scene when a caprice occurs after Cléo performs a sad song. In this moment, a transformational power shift occurs. Cléo begins to view her fame and recognition as undeserved and fallacy ridden. She belittles her musical success when she yells to her songwriter, “You make me capricious. Either I am an idiot or a china doll. You don’t think I have talent.” Capriciousness, which is referenced by Edmund White in his description of the flâneur[1], which is for Cléo caused by interactions with those most intimately involved with  her career and success.

Cléo states, while thinking introspectively, “Others look at me, I look at no one but myself.” This monumental reflection is Cléo’s realization that it is necessary for her to transform her outlook. After this act of capriciousness Cléo physically transforms herself.  On screen, she appears in a black dress, a much more ambiguous and modest look than the lavish white dresses she wore throughout prior in the film. Through the removal of her wig, Cléo transforms her hair into a much more subtle style. She no longer wants to be seen. This new appearance facilitates Cléo’s ability to observe. By focusing less on the attention paid to herself, she is able to concern herself with the people by whom she is surrounded.

After emotional revelation and physical transformation, Cléo is a flâneuse. As she moves freely throughout the city she is guided only by her whims and desires. She enters a public space, café Dome, and weaves throughout people’s tables and chairs, while going unnoticed (along with her song on the juke box) but noticing others. This scene is composed of a series of still shots that emphasize Cléo’s steady and in depth observation of human interactions; she sees and hears people engaging with in conversation with one another, eating, and reading. As Cléo exits the café she begins to blend in with the crowd huddled near the bar. This amalgamation is visually accentuated through the black clothing worn by the crowd and the black color of Cléo’s dress. These scene alludes to Cléo becoming, “of the crowd.”

The newfound perceptual perspective of Cléo is conveyed to the audience through an eyesight-aligned shot of those who pass her on the sidewalk. A scene shot in this form subjects the viewer to Cléo’s point of view, which is now, one of a spectator. As she wonders down the street through the crowd she walks aimlessly, gazing into the public space (instead of in mirrors) and allows herself to go in whatever direction she is drawn. For instance, after hearing her name mentioned in passing, Cléo is reminded of her friend Dorothrée and instantaneously decides to pay her a visit. With Dorothrée, Cléo continues to embark on a spontaneous exploration of the city, visiting a filmmaker’s studio and upon Dorothée’s suggestion, a waterfall in the park.

Cléo’s is ultimately transformation from famous spectacle to interested spectator. She progresses from self-involved to intimately involved with another. When speaking with the solider Cléo reveals that her birth name is Florence, exhibiting an identification with a sense of genuine self. Cléo emerges as an independent woman (signified further by Angèle’s lack of presence), liberated from narcissism, superstition, anticipation, and fear. By the end of the film, Cléo is consumed the profound and enduring concept of love.  She states, “Today, everything amazes me,” a feeling indicative of a true flâneuse who is fascinated and impressed by the people in her surroundings.

Cléo’s transformation is only made possible by emotional upheaval and introspection. Does Cléo’s intimacy with her emotions prevent her from seeing the world with the objectivity? Would it be possible for the typical distanced male observer to facilitate flâneurie with emotion?

Work Cited :

White, Edmund. The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris [Hardcover]. 1st. Bloomsbury, NJ: Bloomsbury USA, 2001. 16.

[1] Edmund White describes the flânure fully as an “aimless stroller who loses themselves in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps” (White, 16).


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