Agnés Varda’s second feature film (Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) opens starkly, sans any musical overture, with an overhead shot of a tarot reading taking place. Two women are heard discussing the cards. A young woman, the eponymous Cléo (Corinne Marchand), chooses nine tarot cards—three to indicate the past, three for the present, three for the future. The reading does not bode well, and Cléo is told by the fortune teller that she has no hope of marriage, a grim fate indeed for a young woman in this time and place. A second tarot reading comes with a confession from Cléo that she is very ill. Cléo then gives her palm to the fortune teller to read and the fortune teller appears deeply concerned by what she divines and suddenly withdraws from the reading, announcing fearfully that she cannot read palms. As a sobbing Cléo leaves the fortune teller’s room the latter confides to a man who appears to be listening in, informing him matter-of-factly, “She is doomed.”
A sombre Cléo descends the staircase from the fortune teller’s office and a sighing theme on strings and harp begins to emanate from the soundtrack. It’s melodic line rises and falls, repeating the same three note pattern on different tones, and as Cléo makes her way downstairs her footsteps follow its metronome-like beat. The theme’s rhythmic ostinato and Cléo’s walk evoke the methodical sound of a ticking clock, propelling her to move forward onscreen despite her clear distress. It’s a telling choice in musical accompaniment at this early stage in the film because for Cléo time is running out.
Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 traces in real time Cléo’s afternoon between the hours of 5 and 7pm (or more specifically, 5 to 6:30pm) on June 21, 1961. Cléo, a rather capricious Parisian pop singer, is awaiting the results of what she already knows will be a grim medical diagnosis. We follow her movements through Paris as she tries to connect with those around her, looking for consolation and attempting to come to terms with her fear of imminent death.
For the film’s original score Varda enlisted the composer and pianist Michel Legrand. Along with Corrine Marchand, Legrand was fresh off the set of Lola, which was directed by Varda’s husband Jacques Demy. Legrand’s music for Cléo from 5 to 7 appears both diagetically and non-diagetically within the film and highlights the character shift that occurs in Cléo over the film’s ninety minutes.
Initially, Cléo is presented to us as somewhat of a shallow ingénue who is fixated with her own beauty, constantly regarding her reflection in mirrors and windows. She even convinces herself after visiting the fortune teller that, despite her illness, if “[she is] beautiful [she is] more alive than others.” This apparent superficiality is reflected in the “disposable” yé-yé pop music she is heard singing, saccharine love songs with lush orchestration and wry titles such as “La joeuse” (“The Player”). Cléo’s relationship with her musical output is conflicted, indicative of her internal struggles regarding her sense of self-worth. Whilst in a taxi she becomes embarrassed when her song is heard on the radio and refers to it as awful. In another scene, she tries to take solace in café and, in a bid for what one assumes is a sense of relevancy, programs the very same song into the café’s jukebox. Cléo then roams the claustrophobic café and is met with a cacophony of chatter and the unfriendly stares of its patrons and her alienation is further reinforced by the indifference of the café-goers to her music.
The film’s most memorable scene, it’s heartbreaking climax, features a cameo from Legrand himself as Cléo’s songwriter and accompanist Bob. Bob and his songwriting partner Maurice (Serge Korber) arrive at Cléo’s apartment and are informed be Cléo’s maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray) that Cléo is feeling poorly. In the preceding scenes Cléo has attempted to find love and support regarding her grim prognosis first from her maid and then from an older lover. Her lover, whom one assumes is a married man with little emotional investment in Cléo, can only offer the paltry consolation that “[her] beauty is [her] health.” When Bob is told about Cléo’s mood, he declares that music will soothe her and engages in a silly pantomime with Maurice. Originally, Legrand was not considered for the role of Bob. Varda explained in an interview with Les Lettres françaises (1) in 1962 that she cast Legrand after observing him rehearse the songs with Marchand, commenting that he was “very gifted and had a marvelous personality, exactly right for this role.” In the role of Bob, Legrand is immensely likable, with an infectious energy and palpable passion for music, not to mention an effortless command of the piano.
After Bob and Maurice bolster Cléo spirits, the pair then sit with her and offer up a few lively, coquettish numbers (and some wonderful improvisations by Legrand) which Cléo dismisses, before finally settling on a more serious song they called “Cri d’amour” (“Cry of Love”) (later given the title “San toi” [Without You] on the film’s soundtrack recording). The song, an aria-style showpiece, opens with dramatic piano arpeggios in a minor key in support of a resigned melody and lyrics that describe the feeling of emptiness that results from being without one’s love.
As Cléo begins to sing, the camera circles her until the song’s third verse, where it stops, framing her face and allowing her to sing directly to us. At this point a black backdrop emerges behind Cléo and a string orchestra can be heard on the soundtrack in support of Cléo’s voice and Bob’s piano accompaniment. We know that on screen there are no string instrumentalists present, so perhaps in this moment the mournful strings are a product of Cléo’s mind? The lyrics become less general in this verse too, as the song shifts gears from the universal romanticism of a love ballad to existential lament about body horror and the terror of death. As she sings about her body being ravaged by despair, a single tear rolling down her face, Cléo loses herself in the music and, since those around her on screen seem dismissive of her fears, turns to us, the viewer, in desperation for sympathy. Cléo is overwhelmed by the song, finding it all too much, too close to her decaying bones, and admonishes Bob and Maurice for writing horrible words. She dismisses the song’s ephemeral nature and, by extension herself, crying “What’s a song, how long can it last?”If a song cannot function outside her existence, then how can it possibly endure when she is gone? She calls an end to the rehearsal, removes her wig and dons a plain black dress, and takes to the streets, wandering sadly like a doomed flâneuse as she passes the time before her appointment with her doctor. As she wanders Paris, “Cri d’amour” haunts her footsteps, appearing on both a solo piano and in an arrangement on pizzicato strings which garners an abrupt, prickly rendering of the song’s melody.
Whilst walking through Parc Montsouris, Cléo meets Antoine, a soldier on leave. He provides her with the compassion so lacking in most of her previous interactions with people. Legrand’s arrangement of “Cri d’amour” (and another musical cue) follows suit, its instrumentation shifting to mandolin, harps, strings and woodwinds, a more intimate, warm chamber interpretation of the song. And its Legrand’s music that also has the last word as to Cléo’s fate.
Antoine accompanies Cléo to the hospital and the pair our told by Cléo’s shockingly nonchalant doctor that she must begin treatment for cancer. After the doctor drives away, Antoine and Cléo resume their walk together, sharing sad, nervous glances and smiles. Antoine asks if she is okay and she states she is happy, for she has met Antoine. As they walk silently, four disparate, dissonant chords emerge from the soundtrack and lead into the closing credits, signifying to us that for Cléo, the future does not bode well.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.