Writing about Hiroshima, Mon Amour last week gave me a hankering to watch one of my other favorite films from that era—Agnes Varda’s beautiful Cleo from 5 to 7.
It begins with a tarot reading. “Choose 3 cards for the past, 3 for the present, 3 for the future. The cards are easier to read when you appear. Oh, there you are,” the reader says, flipping over the last card: a woman in an old fashioned gown. She seems to be waiting for something. Cleo needs to know: Am I ill?? Redoing the spread, she turns over Death. “It means a complete transformation of your being,” explains the reader.
Cleo, a pop song princess, fears all change.
For the next 90 minutes, Varda’s film follows Cleo throughout Paris—in one of the earliest experiments with real time filmmaking—as she meets with friends, her lover, her assistant, and a very special stranger.
It’s an oddly affecting film. Varda’s use of both visual and dialogical metaphor is stunning and avoids the obtuse by staying relevant. “I love trying things on,” Cleo coos to herself while putting a hat on her head in a shop. “Everything becomes me.”
As she begins to unravel, Varda inserts shots of store-window masks—tribal masks—that evoke the sense that we are all, to some degree, just an artifice. Cleo’s transformation—but is she dying? And does it matter?—takes her from one extreme to the other, completely breaking her down along the way and building her back up again.
As an experiment, she turns on one of her own hits on a cafe jukebox and then slowly wanders through the restaurant to gauge the customers’ responses to her music.
My favorite metaphor in the film, though, is the frog. As she first sets out to escape her unravelling life, Cleo encounters a street performer who inserts several small frogs into his mouth and then, with a wave of his hand, spits out a huge stream of water. Disgusted, Cleo runs on down the street. Later, she meets a French soldier on leave from Algeria—himself a kind of frog—whose presence is the final leg of Cleo’s journey from 5 to 7.