By Natalie Jones
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) epitomizes the “ticking-clock” film, but, unlike most of these films that accelerate toward their narrative destinations, you’d never know from this film’s leisurely pace that time is quickly running out for the protagonist. Shots linger until the characters are eventually instigated into motion, a drive in a taxi extends for several minutes, and a character makes unwavering eye contact with the camera while she sings a song in its entirety. Rather than bluntly reminding the audience of quicksand funneling through an hourglass, Agnès Varda’s steady direction causes the presence of death to eventually loom in the background of both Cléo Victoire’s (Corinne Marchand) and the viewer’s mind. Over the course of ninety minutes, Cléo undergoes a slow transformation from hopeless stasis to renewed optimism as she allows herself to live with the recognition of her impending death.
The film opens with Cléo’s visit to a fortune teller who suggests she could be seriously ill and would undergo a complete transformation of being as indicated by a skull tarot card. With the fear of death ever-present, Cléo experiences an afternoon of radical transformation through her encounters with the moments in life she had previously neglected. She initially begins her afternoon with only herself and her receding future in mind. In one of the film’s most striking sequences, she goes to a department store and tries on different hats until she settles on a dramatic black fur completely unfitting for a hot summer day. After a few moments, Cléo is no longer the center of the image as the film looks at the African masks in the shop window and the bustling streets like a Parisian flâneur. As the focus of the shot changes, Varda places visual emphasis on all the people living outside of Cléo’s perspective who are similarly enacting their own routines. In a later scene, Cléo notices only the numerous wartime casualties being announced over the radio while Cléo’s friend, Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), sustains a friendly conversation with their taxi driver. Trapped within an obsession with her own potential death, Cléo is initially oblivious to all the life already surrounding her. Her fear of death obstructs the full view just beyond focus.
Although she is afraid of her diagnosis, Cléo eventually spends the majority of the film maintaining her routine. Despite her realization that she may die, she continues her familiar way through daily life; she makes a trip to a coffeeshop, meets with an old lover, ventures into the city streets, and makes conversation with friends. All appears normal, except for the quiet moments throughout that define both the tone of the film and Cléo’s sense of selfhood. In its subtle treatment of the intricacies of daily routine, the film encourages both the protagonist and the audience to consider the quieter moments that define a life.
In the process of reconstructing her familiar routine, Cléo becomes newly aware of incidents within her daily life that have previously gone unrecognized. During a trip to the coffeeshop, she observes a nearby couple having a personal discussion and becomes absorbed in their conversation. She suddenly begins to sing to herself while walking through the park, and, seemingly unimpeded by any time constraint, indulges in an extensive conversation with a soldier who has just arrived home from the war in Algeria but must soon return. As the two discuss their perspectives on death regarding their individual situations, Cléo begins to fully accept her illness. Being able to interact with the soldier who has had a similarly jarring existential realization has allowed Cléo to overcome her fear. Privately ruminating about her death has prevented her from engaging with others in a meaningful way, but as she interacts with the continued lives around her, a sense of purpose and a renewed optimism are formed.
Cléo’s awareness of her present existence despite her mortality helps shape her perception and assign new meanings to familiar experiences. In Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda presents a uniquely existential perspective through her deliberate and careful choice to redirect Cléo’s internal obsession with death to her slow acceptance of her own mortality. Cléo’s “complete transformation of [her] whole being” is propelled not by the probability of death, but by her awareness of the life already surrounding her. With Cléo’s gained knowledge comes a necessity of fully taking the time to experience her life’s previously insignificant trivialities. Cléo’s life has not moved into a radically different direction motivated by grand final statements and dramatic emotional moments, but has instead prompted her to notice the present sources of life that have remained always available. By using a restrained tone that focuses on the individual moments that constitute a life, Varda examines the ways in which mortality can liberate rather than restrict.