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Joel Mayward

Film Club April 2017: Cleo from 5 to 7

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My apologies for the delay in posting a discussion thread. For April 2017, I'm choosing Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7. Inspired partly by the current Varda marathon happening on the Filmspotting podcast, as well as my recent discovery of Varda's The Gleaners and I on Amazon Prime, this is a film often cited as one of her best. Playing out in real time, with chapters and sequences tracked by titles every few minutes, the film follows a beautiful young singer, Cleo, as she wanders about Paris awaiting the results from a biopsy, which will tell her if she has cancer or not. The opening title sequence using tarot cards and the only colorized moments in the film set the tone for an unique, intriguing journey alongside Cleo as she navigates her own emotions about the impending news.

I loved it. It's a bit languid at times, but it's also quite exciting, even as it simply follows a young woman around as she talks with various friends about her life and future. It's a beautiful contribution to the French New Wave, and has fascinating formal elements as well as interesting themes to discuss ranging from art, to the nature of romance, to spirituality vs. medicine. I believe it's streaming on Fandor, and perhaps on Filmstruck. I watched it via the Criterion DVD rented through the library.

Roger Ebert's review.

Josh Larsen's review.

Molly Haskell essay.

A recent interview with Varda at Criterion, "I'm Still Here."

Our woefully sparse A&F thread.

 

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This looks like one I'll have to ship in on DVD from Netflix, but I'm looking forward to checking it out.

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It's great. I've taught it in first-year and film history courses as a representative New Wave film, which it really is.

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I finally got my DVD in, so I'll be catching this sometime this weekend.

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On 4/22/2017 at 9:24 AM, NBooth said:

I finally got my DVD in, so I'll be catching this sometime this weekend.

Well, I was going to. But then I popped the disc in and discovered that Netflix had sent me a broken one. So it'll be a couple of days.

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Ok, finally watched this tonight. I really liked the trick of having the tarot deck be in color while the rest of the movie was in black-and-white. 

I'll be honest, this was a difficult movie for me to get into. With the exception of a couple of Chabrol flicks, that's par for the course for me re: French New Wave. But there's a lot of interesting stuff going on--some of the editing is rough, but not in a "they don't know what they're doing" way; the opposite, in fact. 

One sequence that puzzled me, initially, was the short film they watch at the movie theater. For one thing, it's almost painfully unfunny. For another--well, it seemed like a bizarre interpolation. But as the movie developed it became apparent that the whole larger film is played off of, inverted or parodied, in the short film. Which then made me wonder if the short isn't too on-the-nose. It's a neat sequence, once it snaps into place.

I can definitely see why this would go on a list of "films about waking up."

I really want to hear what some of y'all have to say about this one.

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Posted (edited)

There are so many layers to this film. I wonder if Varda was intentionally being subversive in her approach, as she's in the vein of the French New Wave while also incorporating some very different elements and decisions. Even the title is subversive--it's really more like Cleo from 5 to 6:30ish, thwarting our expectations. It's definitely an experiment with the cinematic form, both in its construct of "real time" chapters, as well as that sudden contrast between the colorful opening with the tarot cards and the rest of the black-and-white film. But it also seems to subvert the male-centric New Wave narratives simply by having a female protagonist who doesn't die at the end, and by incorporating and critiquing feminine stereotypes. There's also a contrast here with films like Ikiru and Wild Strawberries, which are similar in the central character's existential crisis due to impending death, and their wandering/wondering throughout the film. But this is not an elderly man who is reeling from having lived a meaningless life; this is a very young, beautiful woman who is struck with the fact that she may not even be allowed the opportunity to live a full life, meaningless or not. Hence the "waking up" theme--Cleo's conversation with Antoine the soldier and his comment that the soldiers are "dying for nothing" in the Algerian war is a tipping point for her, as up until this point no one has really taken her seriously, nor has she seemed to take herself seriously. There's a willingness to face death--or at least the result of a medical exam--with a sense of resolve and courage after this conversation.

There's also something being said about the nature of art, with the short film Nathan mentioned, the sculpting sequence, the music, fashion, etc. I'd have to watch the film again to mine those depths.

Edited by Joel Mayward

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Posted (edited)

I have this film coming from the library in a few days, and I won't be able to get to it until next week.

I've seen only a handful of French New Wave films, and I've enjoyed them for their interesting formal elements--but that's about it. After reading some of the reviews posted at the top of this thread, I'm looking forward to this one.

Speaking of New Wave, it only just occurred to me to me that Joel Mayward's icon/avatar is from The 400 Blows (correct?), the only New Wave film I've seen more than once.

Is there a thread where folks discuss why they chose the avatar they did?

Edited by Rob Z

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8 hours ago, Rob Z said:

Speaking of New Wave, it only just occurred to me to me that Joel Mayward's icon/avatar is from The 400 Blows (correct?), the only New Wave film I've seen more than once.

Is there a thread where folks discuss why they chose the avatar they did?

Great question! There is an Introductions thread, where folks have discussed their backgrounds and how they discovered A&F. As for avatar choice in particular, I dunno! They change and evolve over time as well. Mine used to be a shot from The Tree of Life when I first arrived here, but I switched to The 400 Blows because...well, this isn't particularly deep, but I just wanted to. :) Both are personal favorites. I may switch to a Dardennes film in the near future.

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I must say, I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would. It was, for me, the right mix of formal challenge, seemingly-not-not-really aimless conversation, urban observation, and a premise interesting enough to keep me interested. Sometimes the cuts were from one beautifully composed frame to another, I just wanted to keep looking. Not surprised at all to see that Varda was a trained photographer.

On 4/28/2017 at 8:38 AM, Joel Mayward said:

 It's definitely an experiment with the cinematic form, both in its construct of "real time" chapters, as well as that sudden contrast between the colorful opening with the tarot cards and the rest of the black-and-white film.

 

On 4/27/2017 at 5:34 PM, NBooth said:

I really liked the trick of having the tarot deck be in color while the rest of the movie was in black-and-white. 

Willing to offer an interpretation of the significance of the color to b/w shift?

 

On 4/27/2017 at 5:34 PM, NBooth said:

 

One sequence that puzzled me, initially, was the short film they watch at the movie theater. For one thing, it's almost painfully unfunny. For another--well, it seemed like a bizarre interpolation. But as the movie developed it became apparent that the whole larger film is played off of, inverted or parodied, in the short film. Which then made me wonder if the short isn't too on-the-nose. It's a neat sequence, once it snaps into place.

This describes my reaction to this scene exactly. And now I read it featured J. Godard and Anna Karina, whose Vivre sa Vie would come out later the same year!! It’s another of the handful of New Wave films I’ve seen, and a very different story told in chapters of a beautiful, self-absorbed woman seeking some sense of meaning or happiness. I mean, the endings could hardly be more different.

I found several scenes within scenes to capture the themes of the film: the final song she sings at the rehearsal, the story of the female cabdriver, the conversation about death on the bench with Antoine, and the tarot reading.

On 4/28/2017 at 8:38 AM, Joel Mayward said:

But it also seems to subvert the male-centric New Wave narratives simply by having a female protagonist who doesn't die at the end, and by incorporating and critiquing feminine stereotypes.

This film really made me aware that I was watching it as a male. All those depictions of men leering at Cleo were convicting. Films are SO often from a male perspective, even films “about” women, even films directed by women, that this film helped snap me into awareness of my male gaze/privilege.

On 4/28/2017 at 8:38 AM, Joel Mayward said:

There's also a contrast here with films like Ikiru and Wild Strawberries, which are similar in the central character's existential crisis due to impending death, and their wandering/wondering throughout the film. But this is not an elderly man who is reeling from having lived a meaningless life; this is a very young, beautiful woman who is struck with the fact that she may not even be allowed the opportunity to live a full life, meaningless or not.

Yes, those protagonists have memories to reflect on, and spur them to a kind of greater maturity. Cleo only has her own image in a mirror to reflect on. Another parallel I thought of was Diary of a Country Priest. Both move toward a diagnosis of stomach cancer (whether through expectation or symptoms), and both characters have spiritual epiphanies of sorts.

On 4/28/2017 at 8:38 AM, Joel Mayward said:

Hence the "waking up" theme--Cleo's conversation with Antoine the soldier and his comment that the soldiers are "dying for nothing" in the Algerian war is a tipping point for her, as up until this point no one has really taken her seriously, nor has she seemed to take herself seriously. There's a willingness to face death--or at least the result of a medical exam--with a sense of resolve and courage after this conversation.

I thought there were several symbolic "tipping points" in Cleo's journey--ripping off the wig, giving away the unseasonable hat to her friend, and at the park near the end, when she's singing a song about how gorgeous she is, a bird's song cuts her off and she walks off unsatisfied. That seemed significant, along with the revelation that her name isn't Cleo/patra (implications of beauty, seduction, scheming) but Florence (the goddess of spring). Totally agreed that an awakening happens regarding mortality and taking herself seriously. The honesty of the interaction with Antoine at the end was refreshing, too, The final lines suggest she has truly been transformed for the better, just as she feels at the end.

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7 hours ago, Rob Z said:

I thought there were several symbolic "tipping points" in Cleo's journey--ripping off the wig, giving away the unseasonable hat to her friend, and at the park near the end, when she's singing a song about how gorgeous she is, a bird's song cuts her off and she walks off unsatisfied. That seemed significant, along with the revelation that her name isn't Cleo/patra (implications of beauty, seduction, scheming) but Florence (the goddess of spring).

Those are really interesting observations, Rob, especially the meaning behind the names. It's as if over the 90 minutes of her wandering and wondering, Cleo's identity evolves into Florence.

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