In an infamous passage from 1973, critic Claire Johnston laid out a feminist politics of the cinema that specifically excluded Varda, then perhaps the most well-known female director in the world: “There is no doubt that Varda’s work is reactionary; in her rejection of culture and her placement of woman outside history her films mark a retrograde step I women’s cinema.” On its face, scoring Varda’s politics is absurd; she has made films against the Vietnam War, and her 1970 film Nausicaa was banned by French television because it was too critical of the Greek Colonels’ junta. . An early sequence clearly marks Cleo from 5 to 7 as an artifact of the French New Wave: as Cleo (Corinne Marchand) walks down a staircase, the action is captured in a series of jump cuts that call attention to form in an exciting and then-new way. Riding in a car with a friend (Dorothee Blanck), Cleo reveals her illness just as they plunge into a black tunnel. In Varda’s films, for all the emotional sturm und relationship drang her characters endure, the world goes on around them. And then there is the surreal image of an infant in an incubator being wheeled down the street, as Cleo passes by in a trolley. . following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
As Cleo rehearses a potential new song in her studio, the camera mimics the swinging rhythm of her personal assistant (Dominique Davray), who is listening and swaying in the background. “My body makes me happy,” the friend replies, “not proud.”. at Pennsylvania State University:
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University.
Along with Resnais and Chris Marker, she has sometimes been designated the “Left Bank” of the New Wave, filmmakers whose Left politics are simultaneously more deeply felt and expressed with a greater degree of self-conscious aestheticism than other New Wave directors, such as Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol. Ignored in a café, she pathetically puts one of her own songs on the jukebox, then waits for recognition to set in.
Cleo, you see, is a French pop star who has left her cocoon of handlers in a state of distress. “…strangely, seductively sets the table for the twisted series to come.”, “…reminds us that few things are as perverted as making sex more important than the gospel.”. . . Her journey through Paris can be mapped by location and acquaintances. Is this the haunting prospect of motherhood, something Cleo may have not previously considered but is now possibly slipping from her grasp? Varda quietly follows her wanderings about Paris, but not in the conventional discrete fashion of Hollywood montage sequences.
As Varda moves into the still-productive November of her career, her example continues to inspire, with its refusal of category, its anti-doctrinaire cultural politics, and its dialectic between what is seen and what is felt. The film’s power derives from its insistence that the objective and the subjective should be forced to coexist. In fact, unlike the talky philosophizing that dominates some New Wave films, there’s only one on-the-nose line here. .
. By the 1970's, Varda’s intellectual mutability was leading some Left feminist critics to reject her work as merely by a woman, not politically about women and their struggles for social liberation. . Marleen Gorris, Dorris Doerrie, and Margarethe von Trotta are among a later generation of filmmakers whose thoughtful, sometimes quizzical approach to concerns of gender owes a debt to Varda. Cleo from 5 to 7 is the story of a pop singer who has been given a dark medical diagnosis, which she waits to confirm throughout the length of the film. It is the effort to reconcile these two radically distinct discourses that is the true unifying thread in Varda’s work, as her sympathetic, even melodramatic protagonists seek to enforce their egos on an oblivious world. Awaiting the results of a cancer test, she spends an agonizing two hours flitting among stores and cafes, simultaneously courting attention and deflecting it.
Varda often uses movement to capture emotion.
Cleo from 5 to 7 is a French film (if you do not know of my adoration for foreign films, please see my previous blog on “For the Love of Movies!”). ”La Pointe courte” is as streamingly abstract as the more renowned short films of her friend and early collaborator, Alain Resnais, such as Resnais’ “Le chant du Styrene.” (No less a critic than George Sadoul described “La Pointe courte” as “the first film of the New Wave.”) Throughout her career, Varda has returned to the documentary cinema, but while these “factual” films betray her early training as a documentary photographer, and while her inevitable identification as a “female director” can sometimes be constricting for critics of her work, her mode continues to be political-poetic rather than informational or didactic.
Paradoxically, this is a relentless first-person narrative. The film centers on the two hours that a young singer, Cleo, must wait to hear from her doctor to find out if she has cancer. Her marriage to director Jaqcues Demy gave her even closer exposure to the methods of a filmmaker who believed that Romanticism could exist in a complex dialectic with political analysis. The
At that café, a pair of women dealing with their kids at the next table is too preoccupied to notice her. . . Later, however, after Cleo’s confidence has been chipped away by increasing worry, she tries to make her way through a line of pedestrians, but no one budges. The threat of mortality has her, perhaps for the first time, considering what her beauty – indeed, what her life – is worth. . (You could argue Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, despite its title, was the latter.). The sequence is interspersed with insert shots of her assistant and others giving her a direct stare, suggesting that Cleo registers such attention as unwanted judgment. Seen in retrospect, this critique seems a part of its time, unable to recognize the personal as political, and unwilling to credit Varda’s female characters with the transformative power of their metamorphoses. . .
. Other factors besides her illness are preventing Cleo from reaching such a state of contentment, including the love-hate relationship she seems to have with the gaze of others. It would be dangerous to psychoanalyze too much of Cleo’s behavior. The streets and cafes of Paris, the taxis and the cinema, are seen as they really are and as they appear through the eyes of a woman who is tracked by death.” This is a film whose debt to Varda’s life as a photographer is always immanent: Paris has rarely been photographed with such clinical precision. (Indeed, for a while Marchand is out-acted by her spectacular dresses, including a polka dot design with a skirt that doubles as a miniature train.) .
In a conversation with her friend, who poses nude for sculptors, Cleo asks her why she doesn’t feel self-conscious.