The first word that comes to mind when describing Cléo from 5 to 7 is escapism. Not only is it an escape for the audience, with Agnès Varda’s documentary style taking viewers on a tour of one of Paris’ many districts, but it explores the title character’s need to break free. Moving in real time, the film follows Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a pop singer, for 90 minutes (Varda took some liberties with the title) before she finds out if she has cancer. For those whom have never been in Cléo’s position, you may wonder in amazement as to how much someone can get done in that short amount of time. But when you’re trying to be free from the truth, making the most of every moment is necessary.
The film opens with a fortune teller informing Cléo that she does indeed have cancer, so she spends the afternoon doing whatever she can think of that will help distract her from her inevitable reality. She meets her maid at a cafe, she goes shopping and buys a new hat, she meets her lover and rehearses new songs. And, although Cléo is surrounded by other people and makes a habit of observing and eavesdropping, she feels profoundly alone in her desolation. Despite her attempts to ignore reality, deep down, she accepts it. This is shown when Cléo attempts to mute her existence by telling a taxi driver to change the radio station when her song comes on, and when a rehearsal performance contains the lyric “Dead in the glass coffin.”
Other examples of escapism are also present with Cléo’s self-obsession and the film’s use of mirrors. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m even more alive than the others,” she says, following her encounter with the fortune teller, as she looks at her complexion in a mirror — an example of how her self-obsession is the only thing keeping her alive. Varda’s use of the male gaze emphasizes this, as men watch Cléo step-by-step as she strolls down Parisian streets. Her obsession with beauty also addresses something deeper: how women are perceived in society; a mise-en-scène where women are pressured to fit a certain standard of beauty, and if they don’t, like Cléo, they have nothing to live for. Her obsession with her beauty can also stem from the era’s notion that cancer diminishes beauty by simply uttering the word aloud. A physical transformation is often accompanied with cancer, and this is seen with Cléo when she changes from a white dress to more somber black and removes her wig to dim herself from the gaze of others by controlling her own image, as she attempts to hide her affliction.
Mirrors are also a way for her to divert attention from her reality. They’re everywhere — at the beginning of the film where Cléo has tarot cards read, at the cafe, at the hat shop, the stretch of shop windows she gazes into as she takes a ride in a taxi, and in her own boudoir. Whether they’re used for Cléo to admire her own beauty or take the audience away from her, Varda makes viewers concentrate on what’s happening around Marchand’s character — there are distractions everywhere. But eventually, the mirrors crack, and in Cléo’s final minutes of freedom, strolling through a park, she meets a stranger, an army man named Antoine. And in those moments, viewers learn for the first time that her real name is Florence and that Cléo is just a name her friends call her. Varda provides a rather ambiguous ending, but with the introduction of Florence, and being informed of her test results, the mirrors disappear, and the audience is left wondering where the story will go. But one thing is certain: Florence is free to accept of the death of “Cléo.”
Watch ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ at FilmStruck.
Sara Clements (@mildredsfierce) is a freelance writer and journalism major based in Canada. She’s also an editor for Much Ado About Cinema. Sara loves film of varying genres, but her penchant lies with Classic Hollywood.