FILM NOTES INDEX
NYS WRITERS INSTITUTE
Cleo From 5 to 7
(France, 1961, 90 minutes, b&w and color, 35 mm)
Directed by Agnes Varda
Corinee Marchand. . . . . . . . . . Cleo Victoire
Antoine Bourseiller. . . . . . . . . . Antoine
Dominique Davray. . . . . . . . . . Angele
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Agnes Varda’s remarkable life behind the camera has always been that of an exception. As a member of the otherwise male preserve of the French New Wave, she has always stood out, sometimes unwillingly; by mere virtue of her gender, she was a symbol for feminists in the European film industries, and with her renaissance-woman production economy (she is often the producer-screenwriter-director of her films, as well as occasionally) she exemplifies the complete auteur. 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. And yet it would be hard to find a filmmaker of even many years younger than Varda who is less uncompromising in pursuit of an individual style. Her narratives were frequently nonlinear, emphatically so, in an era when this was automatically an experimental gesture in cultural politics. Indeed, her first film, the 1954 short
”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. 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.
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. Varda quietly follows her wanderings about Paris, but not in the conventional discrete fashion of Hollywood montage sequences. Instead, as Richard Roud has said “Little is omitted, there are no ellipses. 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. Paradoxically, this is a relentless first-person narrative. The film’s power derives from its insistence that the objective and the subjective should be forced to coexist. In Varda’s films, for all the emotional sturm und relationship drang her characters endure, the world goes on around them. Through Varda’s camerawork and editing, we are aware that, should Cleo die, Paris will continue without her, the streets still washed at dawn, the bistro tables cleared and reset, the pigeons roosting, the lovers strolling, the taxis jostling one another. Hers is not a naturalistic, hostile universe, it is a universe which simply is, and will remain, after Cleo leaves it, and it is the need to speak this deep truth, to tell of the way that the universe shrugs its shoulders and says “eh...” even to our greatest personal upheavals, which is the philosophical foundation of Cleo from 5 to 7. It is a truth that we, like Cleo, can never realize until we are confronted with a challenge to our own existence so total that the universe’s quiet disinterest in us can be made this plain.
The three major works which have marked her career, 1962's Cleo from 5 to 7, 1965's Le Bonheur, and 1985's Vagabond, are way stations on a public road of self-discovery, and constant rediscovery of the tools of the cinema. 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. 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. The tension between the two, however, has proved a strain on many critics who have insisted on either a more accessible politics, or a reduced commitment to narrative and visual poetry than Varda is willing to suffer.
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. 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. 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.
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.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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