Cléo from 5 to 7 : The Public reflection of a Self
Cléo from 5 to 7 (by Agnès Varda) follows the life of a Parisian singer named Cléo between the hours of 5pm and 7pm on the first day of summer, on a Tuesday afternoon as she waits for medical test results that might explain a certain illness she suspects she has, and the severity of it.
A huge chunk of her personality is revealed to be based on the stardom she has as a pop singer. From having fake hair to a fake name, the only thing she is willing to believe as the truest thing about her is her beauty, which she readily equates to her health. She tells herself that for as long as she is beautiful she is alive, an all too familiar statement that is ingrained into the minds of women from the moment they are born. They can’t exist unless they exist in someone’s else’s eyes and they better be more than a sight for sore eyes.
Varda uses engaging and easily identifiable symbolism with mirrors, switches from colour to black and white, and turns omens and superstition into a recurring theme along with that of feminism and existentialism. Cléo only sees herself through mirrors, and is constantly frightened by what her image could be in the eyes of others. She calls herself superstitious but follows them only when convenient, her moments of defiance shine when she buys furs in summers, wears new products on Tuesdays (another supposedly bad omen), and wears black in mockery of the depressing songs she is forced to sing.
Finally wigless, and dressed in black, she strolls around the city and often stops in her tracks. Shots of people, of all shapes, all sizes, look into the camera (or as implied, at her). Varda clearly captured the expressions of people, seeming to break the fourth wall, by holding up a camera to their faces and walking down the street. Plot wise it is indicative of the gaze that people have on her. This is Sartre’s philosophy in action. Hell really is Other people, when the Self cannot exist independently of the gaze of other people. The camera here proves how it can manifest existential philosophy by existing as itself and attracting attention as a technological spectacle of its own.
The radio in the taxi she travels in blares on about riots, US and Russia relations, Algerian rebels, and even Édith Piaf. She seems to not care for the fact that there are so many other things happening in this world, or that the taxi driver is a woman, and she casually remains self-absorbed. This could easily be mistaken for narcissism, but we are lead to believe that this is more along the lines of escapism and holding onto whatever immediate mechanisms people can adopt for themselves when they can no longer face the bigger, harsher, and much more real world.
One would assume that the point would be to lose the gaze of the people and blend in, but pretty much everything Cléo sees about herself, from her health to her sanity is dependent on others. The true extent to which she finds herself obsessed with the gaze of others is shown in a sequence where she saunters into a café, and plays a song that she sang on the jukebox and waits till people recognize her. But everybody in the busy café is wrapped up in their own conversations. Prior in the film, she is repulsed at the sound of her own voice on the radio, but is shattered when nobody else is listening. She is dejected, feels instantly neglected, and the conflict between wanting attention or not wanting attention turns into an investigation on the idea that women need attention to be women, or that the best way to control a woman is to neglect her. Her songwriters, her lover, or even her maid reducing her anxiety, by interpreting them as tantrums when she is clearly distressed about her possible illness goes to show how difficult it is to be open about having an identity in conflict, in dilemma, and in confusion especially if you are a woman, because if she were a man, this sort of characteristics are seen as deep, thoughtful, and noble to an extent.
What one can call charming, free spirited, and deeply engaged with one’s self is usually labelled as fake, childish, and superficial when it comes to describing an existential woman. Cléo doesn’t wear heavy masculine overcoats and sit at cafés brooding with a cigarette in her mouth, with mortality on her mind. She wears silky black dresses, wears cat-eye sunglasses, drinks brandy and has immortality on her mind. Varda’s Cléo is the shock that French existentialism’s representation in art needed – that which Beauvoir would accept (and critique, surely); an electrifying tale of the unseen chaos that occurs in the minds of women. All of it, but in two hours in the life of just one woman.
‘I’m frightened by other people’s fears’, she says, and it is a line which is difficult to imagine a man saying, because the existential man is his own cause of fear and would never take into consideration the possibility of feeling for other people, whereas women are told to absorb not just the feelings, but also the fears of others. And since others are feeding off of another’s fears, the vicious cycle of self-absorption that could best be used to describe the social climate of the youth of Paris in that era as they found themselves going numb in the face of death, war, and rioting in an ever changing Europe is the basis for this character study that Varda takes upon herself.
Towards the end of the film, as she comes closer to the time of receiving her results, she has encountered a lot of different people with striking personalities who prove to be an interesting array of Others for her to reflect her Self off. Like any French New Wave film goes, the End is symbolic more than it is situational. Cléo faces us for once, without her garb, without a pose, without her seeing herself, having no idea that we can see her.