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CLEO FROM 5 TO 7

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller
Director:  Agnes Varda
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  None
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  May 16, 2000

"Everyone spoils me, no one loves me.”

Film ****

French New Wave cinema marked, in my opinion, the first real and open challenge to the pre-conceived notion of the tradition film narrative.  As with cinema realiste which preceded it, the experimental new crop of filmmakers took moviemaking out of the studios and into real life, but taking it one step further.  It attempted to capture life not only in terms of people and settings, but in events unfolding.  Scripts were barely more than a road map.  Camera movement and placement was not rigid nor flowing, but free and uncontrolled, and more than ever before, gave the viewer a sense of participating in the action on screen, as opposed to simply observing from a distance.

It didn't always work…the risk these artists took in creating with such broad strokes and waiting to see what would happen is that sometimes, nothing did.  The least impressive examples of New Wave come across as tedious exercises in faith, and are works that only appeal to the most die hard student.

Others, like Cleo From 5 to 7, are almost miraculous to behold, because they manage to stumble across real intelligence and truthful human drama.  Directed by Agnes Varda, the picture embraces the tradition of New Wave by simply following a woman in real time for an hour and a half of her life.  It could have been any hour and a half, but it almost feels like a stroke of cinematic fortune that this particular period of time occurs while she awaits the results of a biopsy.

Cleo (Marchand) is a beautiful young singer who first visits a fortune teller to learn of her fate.  Superstitious by nature, this would seem to be a mistake, as the medium is not able to calm her fears.  Not necessarily predicting death but merely significant change, Cleo sets out into the world, and we, the audience, count down the time with her.

The film is unceremoniously broken up into “chapters”, which affirm the real time nature of the events.  You can track each marker on your own clock to confirm.  These chapters spring up as plain titles on the bottom of the screen…sometimes in mid action, sometimes when the camera is not even on Cleo.   It's fascinating in the way it makes you think of the passage of time in increments of what you're doing, important or otherwise.  I noticed, for example, that Mike from 4:30 to 6 was watching Cleo From 5 to 7.

Her hour and a half displays existential thought amongst trivial actions like buying a new hat, rehearsing a new song, or even a taxi cab ride that actually focuses the camera out of the windows and continues real time documentation…how much of life is spent in just that manner?  Cleo's view of her situation grows from a pessimistic and fatalistic approach to one more open and optimistic…no small leap, but significant in the fact that we, the audience, share in this period of growth with her.

True to the style of New Wave, Varda's camera captures events with a sense of realism.  In a crowded café, for example, the point of view listlessly wafts from Cleo and the subject at hand to a nearby table where a couple is having a sexual argument.   This is not significant story-wise, but stylistically, one can't help but feel the camera has its own sensitivity, and it is briefly drawn to the more interesting scenario just as we would be.  Other times, the camera follows cars as they travel, or picks up its own reflection in a mirror without concern, or seems to be in the way of the characters.  Scenes of regular people walking down the street are used to great effect; the people stare right into the camera lens with the awareness of being filmed.  Edited together with shots of Cleo walking, these non-committed stares suddenly become more probing, and possibly more judgmental.

Framing is not always perfect; sometimes, principal figures are cut almost all the way off to the left and right.  Then again, with this style of filmmaking, Varda almost seems to invite the audience to ignore the foreground and focus on things that might be inconsequential in other movies.  Perhaps if Cleo's hour and a half is meant to be a journey of rediscovering life, such stylistic choices are the right ones.

Near the end, she meets up with a young soldier, Antoine (Bourseiller), who is about to come off his leave and return to Algeria, where his fate is as uncertain as Cleo's.  Whether or not one could call this a romance is questionable…at least, it isn't in the traditional sense of filmed entertainment…but what emerges in the last fifteen minutes (which is also the last marked chapter) is something more touching and more humanly real than just a meet-cute followed by horribly scripted lines of love.  Cleo, sans wig and in black, and arguably at her least becoming, genuinely inspires the interest of Antoine.  

The fact that they have in common a sense of waiting for destiny opens up a lot more possibilities than the film is willing to explore.  After all, the movie is about a specific 90 minutes in Cleo's life…these 90 minutes.   The next 90 might prove to be just as fascinating, but that's someone else's film. 

The point is, between the fortune teller and the soldier, there has been a complete change of Cleo's philosophy of life.   She has grown from shallow and self-centered into being more in tune with her true self and the world around her.  She goes from believing a diagnosis of cancer will be a huge dead end to accepting that she still has some control, and choices to make, fate be damned.

This, above all, makes Cleo such an extraordinary film.  We are not experiencing adventure, romance, or melodrama here, but rather, a very intimate look at how the heart and mind can change under quietly dire circumstances.

Video ***1/2

Criterion offers a beautifully pristine transfer for Cleo, absolutely striking in its clarity, sharpness and detail.  Not all New Wave films are as expertly photographed as this one, and the effort put forth in the DVD transfer is highly welcome.  With a full range of grayscale, deep blacks and clean whites (plus the intact opening color sequence), this is a wonderfully engrossing viewing experience.  Only a few very minor telltale nicks and spots mar the print, and only in short stretches.  All in all, though, a marvelous and praiseworthy job.

Audio ***

The two-channel mono soundtrack offers clear dialogue (even when crowd voices build the speech into a deliberate cacophony) and a terrific rendering of the musical score, which adds punch and effect to the events unfolding.  Nicely done.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Cleo From 5 to 7 is a thoughtful and exemplary film, exhilarating in its simplicity and subject matter.  It stands as an important and accessible document in the chapter of cinema known as French New Wave, and proves that a realistic and loose sense of style combined with intelligence and emotion can break down the boundaries of traditional movie narrative and tell a story in compelling and memorable way.