Every so often, usually while walking around Toronto on a busy day, I'll be struck by the vividness and accuracy of Agnès Varda's singular portrayal of a day in the life (barely two hours, really, making it even more remarkable) spent in the various layers and spaces of the urban environment. I speak, of course, of Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda's 1962 classic and the first film of hers I fell in love with. In those instances, I'll find myself returning to the moments I've cherry-picked as my favorites over the years, skipping across the linear sequence of events that follow the titular singer (Corinne Marchand) across Paris as she waits for the results from a medical examination within the film's designated timeframe (minus half an hour, as the film famously ends at the ninety minute mark). More than for any other film, engaging in these mental replays feels very much like replaying the events of a day I had once experienced myself long ago—albeit one that I’ve been able to revisit and come to know nearly by heart, complete with all of my favorite moments and details waiting in their proper places, so often have I gone back to that June 21st in Paris, 1961.
Varda has even made it relatively easy for anyone who wishes to explore and investigate to their heart's content the events of that fateful first day of summer from so long ago now, not only by making such a crisp cinematic itinerary of the various locations visited in the film itself, but also by helpfully providing a map in her book Varda par Agnès complete with a color-coded legend indicating the locations of key scenes from the film, practically inviting the reader to recreate Cléo’s journey for themselves on the streets of present-day Paris. At once attentive and relaxed in its tour of the city (mainly focused in the Left Bank), Cléo is ably conducted in a number of different registers: as an uncommonly lovely essay-poem on the ebb and flow of urban life, an at-times somber meditation on the precarious balance between life and death, and a revealing and honest study of female identity and the ways it is scrutinized and distorted in the public’s relentless gaze. In a feat of remarkable economy and resourcefulness, the film was shot in chronological order across a five-week period, beginning on the date of the story’s events, synchronized as closely as possible to the times in the day Cléo experiences them, in keeping with narrative fidelity and proper quality of light for each scene. Neatly arranged into thirteen chapters, each with its duration clearly stated so we can easily keep track in real time, Cléo’s lucid odyssey through the various public and private spaces that make up her day is observational cinema at its most fertile, free, and magically attuned to its subjects, partly the result of Varda and her team’s carefully planned and executed shoot, partly that of simply being in the right places at the right times.
Together, the films of the French New Wave make up one of the most valuable and immersive audiovisual documents of a specific time and place in history—namely France in the late 1950s and early 1960s—that we have. This is especially true of the Paris-situated films, which create the alluring image of an interconnected network of overlapping stories concentrated in a single city. The sharing of certain actors, cinematographers, writers, composers, and other key artists and technicians across different films by different directors especially helped make the impression of one Paris holding an eclectic anthology of New Wave tales. This perception was further reinforced by the cheeky self-referential winks and nods that so many of the New Wave directors—Jean-Luc Godard in particular—lovingly included in their films as gestures of solidarity and support with their nouvelle vague comrades. This is why the eponymous hero of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, noted by many as a crucial New Wave precursor, gets name-checked by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless, why Truffaut muses Marie Dubois and Jeanne Moreau both pop up in A Woman Is a Woman, with Moreau getting asked by Belmondo how Jules and Jim is coming along, and why Anna Karina’s Nana glimpses a giant poster for the same Truffaut film as she is being driven to her fate in the final moments of Vivre sa vie.
Varda got in on the fun herself in Cléo from 5 to 7 not only by casting Michel Legrand, who provided the film with its robust score, as Cléo’s musical partner Bob (a part that gives the legendary composer a substantial amount of screen time and amply shows off his incandescent charm), but also by extending the invitation to Godard, Karina, Sami Frey, Eddie Constantine, Jean-Claude Brialy, producer Georges de Beauregard, and Alan Scott, who had appeared in Jacques Demy’s Lola. They all show up in Les fiancés du pont Macdonald, the silent comedy short-within-the-film that serves triple duty as a welcome diversion for our stressed heroine, a loving cinephilic tribute to the legacy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and an irresistible, bite-sized New Wave party. And yet I find Cléo to be perhaps the most enchanting of all the New Wave films not for the aesthetic commonalities and cleverly devised linkages that bind it to The 400 Blows, Breathless, Paris Belongs to Us, and its other cinematic brethren, but rather for the tapestry of curious details that root it in its specific time and place and entice on the power of their inherent uniqueness and beauty. “Here,” Varda seems to say as she follows Cléo across the city, “let’s have a look at these interesting people and places on this first day of summer here in Paris, and see what we can see after watching them for a while.” The film’s opening scene continues to extend this invitation as it draws us in closer. It shows us, through the sepia-hued Eastmancolor that deviates from the rest of the film’s silvery monochrome and the “God’s eye” overhead shots (long before Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson adopted the technique as their own), the cryptic spectacle of Tarot cards being shuffled, placed down, and turned over to reveal the story of Cléo’s potential fate before we’ve even gotten a chance to properly meet Cléo herself. The slightly macabre illustrations to which Varda and cinematographer Jean Rabier dedicate their tight close-ups and the elderly card reader’s accompanying explanations of their meanings lend an air of prophecy to the events to come while also fueling Cléo’s anxiety surrounding her fate (when pressed for a clearer forecast of the future through a palm reading, the reader’s evasive response is less than inspiring).
This introduction effectively locks us into Cléo’s perspective, preparing us for the next hour and a half that we will spend quietly observing as, following her distraught exit from the reader’s apartment, she grapples with her fears and insecurities, contemplates and revises her appearance and the identity behind it (tellingly, we discover late in the film that Cléo's real name is Florence), and comes to terms with the ultimately fragile nature of her own mortality. In our allotted chunk of time with her, we see the pouty girl-child subtly shift and adjust her attitude, inching a little closer towards a place of earned maturity, grace, and acceptance regarding her fate, wherever it may take her.
Along the way, the film seems to expand to take in as much of the people and places around Cléo as it can. Scene by scene, her Paris makes itself felt and known through key peripheral details: a pair of lovers having an argument in a café near where Cléo sits, listening in; the procession of uniformed officers on horseback heard clip-clopping through the street on the soundtrack and seen reflected in the array of mirrors placed throughout a hat shop; a spider web of shattered mirror and a cloth pressed against a bloody wound, indicating some incident that occurred just before Cléo happened along the scene of the confused aftermath. Other stimuli fill a dazzling program of serendipitous entertainments for us to take in one by one: whirlwind rides in two taxis and a bus, an intimate musical rehearsal in Cléo’s chic, kitten-filled apartment (with Legrand, no less, clearly having a great time, his nimble fingers releasing ecstatic bursts of notes and melodies from Cléo’s piano as if they were exotic birds), the aforementioned silent short, a sculpting studio (the space alive with the indescribably pleasant sound of chisels being tapped at different tempos through soft stone), a frog swallower, a burly street performer who wiggles an iron spike through his arm, and the soothing sights and sounds of the Parc de Montsouris, among a hundred other subtle and overt pleasures scattered throughout this gently orchestrated city symphony, a heap of specificities found and sorted into a chorus of universal experience.
Very much in her own way, across a body of work informed by a boundless spirit of generosity, Agnès Varda has gone about carefully collecting and preserving a marvelously varied assortment of subjects throughout her busy life, shedding fresh light on some of the most unlikely (and overlooked) people and places in the world. She refers to her self-made approach to filmmaking as ciné-criture (her own version of Alexandre Astruc's caméra-stylo), which, as we’ve come to know it through Varda’s intensely personal works, is a little like cinema, a little like writing, and uses aspects of both media to make a compassionate, genuine, and wholly original film language. Just as Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), the dreamy young man whom Cléo encounters in the Parc de Montsouris, translates the world around them into a stream of fanciful observations and flowery speech, so too does Varda, in allegiance with poetry, ditch any semblance of objectivity, going instead for presenting the world simply as she sees it, investing it with her own unmistakable blend of charm, warmth, eloquence, and empathy, all somehow executed with nary a shred of ego or preachiness.
“All these stories we simply can’t understand!” randomly exclaims a café patron to her young companion at one point late in Cléo’s journey, perhaps suddenly becoming aware, as we gradually have, of the unfathomable multitude of trajectories that trace themselves across every city every day in a dense tangle of narrative strands. In picking up Cléo’s and diligently following it with her camera for an hour and a half, Varda draws our attention to all those other strands that make up the lives of other people, leading off into their own directions, fated to become entangled with others still. Wisely, deftly, one discovered strand at a time, she helps us better appreciate, again and again, the humble miracle of so many lives coursing and thriving alongside each other, each one special and strange, each rooted in its own distinct flavor of being-ness. Cléo from 5 to 7 in turn roots us in another person’s life for its short time span and ends up giving us a whole universe, casually overflowing with meaning, life, lives, and the myriad details that shape and define them. No, we can’t understand all the stories we come across in a day. But then again, sometimes we don’t really need to understand so much as simply see. See, and accept, and appreciate what is...and then move along to whatever’s next.