Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Female European directors: Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)

Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962, Agnès Varda)

A good director can take material that should theoretically work with a specific tone in mind, but turn that notion on its head and effectively use a completely different tone while still preserving the nature of the film’s premise. After watching a couple Varda films that dealt with relationships teetering on the verge of extinction (La Pointe Courte and Le Bonheur), my third viewing from the Belgian born writer director was a very different beast. In Cléo de 5 à 7, the main character, Florence, a talented recording artist nicknamed Cléo (played by Corinne Marchand) awaits highly critical medical results which will indicate whether or not she has a terminal illness. Not a pleasant premise at all, I agree, but Varda doesn’t infuse her film with any permanent sense of malaise. Rather, there is a playfulness and whimsical quality to the mood and the characters for the most part. That’s not so say there are no moments during which a darker tone sets in, only that Cléo de 5 à 7 comes off much lighter than it could have in the hands of another director.

It should be pointed out that the film works, in a sense, as a ‘high concept’ film. The structure of the movie is hinted in the title itself. The timeline in the story is set between 5 and 7 pm from the moment lovely Cléo leaves the home of a taro card reader. A wha?!? A taro card reader. Incapable of waiting until the evening for her test results, Cléo visits this mysterious character in an attempt to predict the outcome of said results. The story is told in chapters, each one lasting perhaps 5 to 7 minutes and has Cléo interact with her assistant, members of her band, a close friend, and an inquisitive stranger in the park. Each little episode holds special value for the principal character given the high emotions she is running on. Those emotions aren’t simply the result of her nervous anticipation of the medical test results to be revealed later that evening, but also because of her trip to the taro card reader at the beginning. The mysterious old woman, after an initial failed attempt at reading Cléo’s future, which in of itself is a strange start to the movie (shouldn’t something like that come easily to someone of her profession? Why would she need a second try at reading cards?), she old lady concludes that Cléo’s near future isn’t bright. Cléo, knowing that her health and possibly her own life will be at stake later that day, fears the worst. This is but one of the few occasions in the film that demonstrates how Cléo, and her assistant as we learn later, is prone to superstition. An interesting trait, and an unhealthy one if her physical well being is already in danger, but it fits with all part of the whimsy sparkled throughout the film. The colour pattern of the opening sequence is also peculiar, for whenever the camera stares at the cars on the table with an overhead shot, the picture is in colour, whereas when we see the face of the card reader and that of Cléo, the picture turns to black and white. This is perhaps the juxtaposition between the exciting potential revelations hidden in the cards with Cléo’s black and white view of her current health situation It’s one of the many very personal touches given to the characters by the director to keep pumping the emotion. Rather than feeling forced, the emotions always feel like they fit the situations.

Fearful and saddened by her visit to the taro card reader, she runs out to meet up with her assistant at a café to share the story of her visit and pour out some raw emotion. The film kind of pulls a quick one on the viewer when Cléo’s mood lightens up when they leave the café to go shopping. It’s the little details such as that one that offer such quality to Varda’s work here. Her interactions with all those she meets between 5 and 7 pm are varied and encourage a splurge of diverging emotions to spring outward from Cléo. Her time with her band members when they pay her a visit is a perfect example of that. Both are lively jokesters, and succeed in delighting their singer for a while, but when they all rehearse a new song one of them has just written, Cléo breaks down and storms off immediately after the end of the tune. Her mind and heart are spinning everywhere. Everything and everyone she sees and speaks to blows the wind of emotions in different directions all the time. In that sense, Cléo de 5 à 7 is a bit of a challenge to digest at first. My immediate reaction to all of this was that there was an incongruity to the many scenes that went by, but I came around after some thought. Her glamorous persona as an artist is suddenly challenged, battered and bruised. She needs to keep up her act to the outside world all the while battling her inner turmoil. The pressures established by the nature of her profession may or may not end up breaking her.

Ultimately, the emotional roller coaster ride fits well within this unique film universe created by Varda. She is using the medium of film to full capacity to convey the thoughts and emotions pressing down on Cléo on this most challenging of days. There are some clever camera movements and lighting choices (for the inside shots) that struck me immediately for their aesthetic qualities. Shortly after returning home after shopping, Cléo’s lover comes to visit her briefly. He is unaware of her illness and Cléo has been warned by her assistant not to reveal this awful truth (men can’t take that kind of talk from a woman). Just before her man sets foot in the room, the camera rests on Cléo’s face as she puckers up to look glamorous and desirable, just as any respectable recording artist should after all. There’s even this one perfect shot in which she gives one of her many kittens an adorable peck on the nose. For a brief moment, even despite her fears for what may come, she can slip into her ‘artist’s persona’ like a hand in a glove. The duality of her character is exemplified extrememly well in this scene as well as others. The final chapter of the film has Cléo encounter a friendly stranger in the park with whom she forms a bond. In another film, under the same circumstances, I don’t think this trajectory would work very well, but if one can accept and embrace this specific cinematic world, then it becomes part of this fantastic emotional ride. The same can be said for a brief scene when Cléo, has has been walking around town, comes to a small crowd that is watching a man swallow and spit out live frogs. It's a bit silly in the grander scheme of things, but then I thought about how the man is, in a way, is demonstrating his power to take and give back a chance at life. As he spits out the small animals, Cléo turns away, seemingly out of disgust, but I beg to differ. She believes her time has come, contrary to the frogs who have been provided a second chance to survive. That's what disgusts her.

Little of this would work if it weren’t for the sublime performance by actress Corinne Marchand, who exquisitely inhabits this troubled and delicate character. First things first, we should get the obvious masculine comment out of the way and mention that this actress is stunning to watch as she strolls on the streets. As an actress is this challenging role she delivers a great performance. I had never heard of her prior to seeing this film, but I know that I'll take notice the next time I see Corinne Marchand's name in the credits on the back of a DVD box.

In the end, it's pretty clear that Agnès Varda is a director with a unique voice who finds great inspiration in stories about terribly troubled people and communities, as can be seen from the three films we've analyzed at this blog (La Pointe Courte and Le Bonheur being the other two). It's a bit of a shame that we aren't doing a Agnès Varda marathon specifically, which I think would have been fascinating to say the least, specifically regarding the evolution of her filmmaking styles and the themes she has explored throughout her illustrious career . There's always nest time...

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