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Directed by Agnes Varda
Remind Me
,Cleo From 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7

Movies that take place in "real time" (the action of the story happening entirely within the total running time of the film) have most often been geared to suspense. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) simulated a lengthy single take to bring tension to the discovery of a murder. High Noon (1952) used the ticking minutes to heighten suspense leading up to a climactic gunfight. Although not technically thrillers, both the noir boxing film The Set-Up (1949) and the stagey jury-room drama 12 Angry Men (1957) employed the device to bring an anxious sense of reality to their stories of people under pressure. It took an artist from France's rule-breaking New Wave-a movement associated with such time-fracturing editing techniques as the jump cut and the freeze frame-to put the conceit to new use in a gentle story of a woman meandering around Paris while she waits for the results of a medical test that will determine if she has cancer.

Certainly, the basic plot noted above would be enough to introduce high tension and suspense into its unfolding. After all, isn't expecting news of your possible demise something of a nail-biter? (One imagines a contemporary Hollywood take on it: Rooney Mara frantically scours the city for the one man who can cure her, say Morgan Freeman, all the while being shadowed by a mysterious man in a trench coat, played by a leering Kiefer Sutherland.) What director Agnès Varda does instead is weave a drama about a superficial woman whose journey through the city's streets and interiors, encountering friends, lovers, and strangers, leads her from a constricted, distressing present toward a sense of openness and the eternal that has the capacity to free her.

Shot in early summer 1961 and released the following April (the U.S. that September), Varda's film dazzled audiences who had already been introduced to the fresh, innovative style coming out of France in this period. With its cinema verité look put to the service of what might once have been considered a "woman's" melodrama, this was a new type of fiction, one that, as critic Molly Haskell has noted, took as its subject female identity and how women see themselves and are seen by the world. Varda's film was at once unique and new yet at the same time well within the mold of the New Wave. As film writer Adrian Martin has remarked in her notes for the Criterion Collection release of the film on DVD, Cléo from 5 to 7 embodied "the prime obsession of all the young cinema movements of the sixties: to evoke the eternal present, flashing by in a sustained intensity."

The movie has been described as Varda's successful crashing of the New Wave boys' club exemplified by Godard and Truffaut. In fact, her debut picture, La Pointe Courte (1955), is often considered the first film of the movement, although it was not known on an international scale the way Les quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows (1959) and À bout de soufflé/Breathless (1960) would be when they were hailed as the harbingers of a new age. Varda has always had a somewhat tenuous connection with the New Wave. Unlike Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and others in their circle, she did not come from a film criticism background with their stints for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema. Her earliest artistic roots were actually in painting, sculpture, and most significantly photojournalism.

Despite typically being identified with the New Wave, she is more often (and more correctly) seen as belonging to the closely connected but separate Rive Gauche (Left Bank) filmmakers, a collaborative band that included Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour, 1959), Chris Marker (La jetée, 1962), and the nouvelle roman writers Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, both of whom wrote screenplays for Resnais and other directors and went on to direct films themselves. This group was less fascinated by old Hollywood genres and more connected to other arts, particularly literature. They were also, at least at first, more overtly political in their leftist views. Nevertheless, with its use of handheld camera, unconventional framing and editing, and most particularly the exhilaration of its Paris setting, Cléo from 5 to 7 does evoke Godard's Breathless, and Varda's examination of the face, form and circumstances of her central character may remind some viewers of his Vivre sa vie (1962), although that film was actually released months after Varda's. Compounding the tendency to make comparisons and lump her in with her more famous colleagues, Varda actually inserts into this picture a short film she made earlier, Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires (1961), which features Godard and his then wife and muse Anna Karina. The film also features other French cinema luminaries: Jean-Claude Brialy, Eddie Constantine, and the film's composer Michel Legrand, who plays the songwriter who writes Cléo's hit songs.

Some feminist critics in the years since the film's release have cast a suspicious eye on its feminist credentials, deeming it unworthy because while it is about a woman, it isn't overtly political in examining the condition of women in general. They also find its last segment to be retrograde, when Cléo at last seems to find some peace, fulfillment and completion after meeting and apparently falling for a gentle soldier about to be deployed to the war in Algeria. This part of the film, however, has also been cause for critical celebration, both for the way it brings together two souls living with the specter of death and its oblique commentary on France's infamous colonial war (alluded to earlier in the picture). The scene of the two on a streetcar has also been compared to the idyllic moments between husband and wife in Murnau's silent masterpiece Sunrise (1927).

For all that the film follows an evening in Cléo's life from moment to moment, dividing each "chapter" of the story by subtitles that detail the minutes covered and the characters she encounters, the title is actually misleading. Cléo's story ends after only about an hour and a half. That has brought up many interpretations. In any case, it does leave the viewer with a sense that the story is not over or resolved and wondering what happens in those final 30 minutes.

Cléo from 5 to 7 came in at number 202 in Sight and Sound's 2012 poll of critics' choices for the top 250 films of all time.

Director: Agnès Varda
Producers: Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Agnès Varda
Cinematography: Paul Bonis, Alain Levent, Jean Rabier
Editing: Pascale Laverrière, Janine Verneau
Production Design: Jean-François Adam
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Cast: Corinne Marchand (Cléo/Florence), Antoine Bourseiller (Antoine), Dominique Davray (Angéle), Dorothée Blanck (Dorothée), Michel Legrand (Bob)

By Rob Nixon