© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Strongly influenced by American film noir and by the theories published in the influential French film journal Cahiers du cinema, the French New Wave became one of the driving forces behind innovation in world cinema by the early 1960s. For example, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) became a global sensation that influenced numerous directors of the 1960s. In fact, the films of the New Wave still exercise an important influence on contemporary directors, such as Quentin Tarantino. Agnés Varda (1928–2019), a Belgian-born director, was the most important woman director of the New Wave and has gained more and more recognition over time in a career that stretched to her death in 2019. Nevertheless, one of her earlier films, Cléo from 5 to 7, probably remains her best-known and most widely respected film.
Cléo follows its title character Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), a relatively minor pop singer as she goes about her life on June 21 (the Summer Solstice), beginning at 5 pm and following her approximately in real time through the runtime of the film, which would place the end of the film just before 6:30 pm. Indeed, Varda takes pains to make sure we actually know when all of the action is taking place, dividing the film into “chapters” that take place during clearly labeled time periods. There is very little plot or action in the film, but this is no ordinary day: this is the day on which Cléo expects to receive the results of a medical test that will reveal whether or not she has cancer. This fact, though, is treated non-melodramatically in the film, which is driven throughout by an existentialist perspective in which Cléo’s predicament becomes merely a special case of the situation in which we all find ourselves: knowing that we will die, but waiting to find out when and trying to find a way to live a meaningful life in the meantime.
Cléo shows much of the same gritty, down-to-earth style as do most French New Wave films. It does, however, contain occasional artistic flourishes. For example, in the opening scene, Cléo visits a fortune teller seeking insights into her possible fate. The scenes showing the tarot cards used by the fortune teller are shown in full color, emphasizing that we are now in a fanciful realm outside mundane reality. But the film switches to black-and-white when Cléo and the fortune teller are shown, and it will remain in black-and-white (the typical mode of New Wave films) through the remainder of its runtime. Meanwhile, one of the signature touches of typical New Wave films is the so-called “jump cut,” in which one or more frames are removed to effect a sudden jump in time. Such cuts, of course, overtly call attention to themselves and can be taken as a direct and intentional affront to the Hollywood style of editing, which is typically design to make cuts virtually unnoticeable. In general, Cléo eschews such shenanigans, but it does include one very noticeable jump cut (a sort of nod to the New Wave) at just over 78 minutes into the film, as passengers are shown about to board a bus and then suddenly are already aboard the bus in the next frame.
Of course, Cléo’s most obvious engagement with other New Wave directors occurs when Cléo and her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) watch a charming silent film the central characters of which are two lovers played by Godard and his wife and muse, Anna Karina. In this film, a series of seemingly disastrous events separates the two lovers; then the man (Godard) realizes that he is looking at the world through dark sunglasses. When he takes off the glasses, everything looks much brighter, and the couple are reunited. This embedded film thus makes an important (if somewhat simplistic) point about the role played by perspective in assessing life’s events.
However, this embedded film, while seeming very much like a light diversion, has implications that run far beyond the obvious—as do most things in this film. For one thing, the happy ending might be taken as a commentary on the contrived happy endings that were so common in Hollywood films of the time. There are also some amusing embedded comments on filmmaking technologies. The silent films was shot at 16 frames per second (fps), but is screened within the film at 24 fps, the standard speed for sound film. As a result, the movements of the characters seem comically speeded-up and exaggerated, as when they bat their eyelashes at an accelerated pace. This effect (much like a jump cut) calls attention to the fact that we are watching a film, not reality, and that there are many decisions that have been made in order to produce what we are seeing.
The light-dark imagery within the silent film also has implications that go beyond a simple contrast between optimism and pessimism. For one thing, they combine with other patterns within the film to align darkness with superstition and primitivity and light with knowledge and science, as in enlightenment. Indeed, one way to look at the silent film’s movement from darkness to light is as an embedded replication of the plot arc of the entire film, in which Cléo moves from the primitive superstition of the fortune teller (who clearly has nothing useful to offer) to the modern, informed perspective of the doctor at the end, who offers reassurance that medical science will easily be able to cure Cléo’s cancer, turning the alarming news of her diagnosis into a sort of anticlimax.
But the light-dark imagery of Cléo is charged in other ways as well, including racial ones. During Chapter III of the film (which runs from 5:13 to 5:18 pm), Cléo tries on hats in a shop in a sequence that perhaps shows the influence of Varda’s experience as a fashion photographer in the 1950s. There are also some very artful shots through the shop window from outside, which show both Cléo inside the shop and passersby reflected on the outside of the window. The vain Cléo notes that everything looks good on her, then ends up buying a fur hat, despite the fact that it is summer. Cléo then rides in a taxi with her superstitious maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray) in a very fraught scene that, among other things, involves some linguistic play with the woman cab driver, reminding us that French is a language that lends itself to puns more than any other. They then listen to one of Cléo’s songs on the radio, a song she professes to dislike (but apparently more for the production engineering than for her singing).
Soon afterward, they pass by a window containing a display of African masks, which Cléo seems to find disturbing, perhaps because it links back to the pre-modern world of the fortune teller and her disturbing forecast. The cab drives on, its reflection shown moving along shop windows. The cab then stops in front of an art gallery containing an even more extensive display of African primitivist art, increasing Cléo’s agitation. Then she reacts even more strongly when some carousing art students (perhaps connected with the art gallery in some way) playfully surround the cab. Both Angèle and the cab driver are amused by the antics of the students, which do not seem threatening, but Cléo is clearly alarmed, especially when a masked black student peers directly into her open window.
This extremely dense passage tells us a number of things. For one thing, it reminds us that the real-time shooting of the film is a ruse: Cléo could not possibly experience so many things within a real five-minute period. Varda thus acknowledges that films are compressed representations of reality, containing far more events during their runtimes than could ever happen in reality in such a period. (Otherwise, films would last many hours and be really boring.) Meanwhile, the African imagery at the end of this chapter links up not just with the fortune teller but with the historical fact that France’s main engagement with the African continent had been as a colonial conqueror, a legacy that was increasingly being called into question during this period because of the ongoing war in Algeria as France’s most important African colony battled for its independence. This war raged from November 1954 to March 1962; its texture (involving numerous French atrocities, such as the torture of Algerian prisoners) is documented in the 1966 fictional film The Battle of Algiers, widely considered to be one of the greatest political films of all time.
The shadow of Algeria can be felt throughout Cléo from 5 to 7, even though the war was officially over by the time the film was released, resulting in Algerian independence and the effective end of France’s role as a global imperial power. Varda has, in fact, noted that the film is meant to be taking place on June 21, 1961 (during the time when it was being filmed), even while acknowledging that this day was a Wednesday, while the film is clearly stipulated to be taking place on a Tuesday. The action of the film thus takes place during the war, as we can tell from the fact that, at one point, we hear a radio report about the Algerian war in the taxi, and at another point we overhear two men discussing the events in Algeria at the time. And, then, of course, the entire final portion of the film is dominated by Cléo’s encounter with Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), a French soldier who is home on leave from the Algerian War, to which he is to return on this very day, perhaps never to return.
There are other subtle reminders of France’s colonial legacy as well. For example, near the end of the film, Cléo and Antoine walk by a tree that he identities as a “cedar of Lebanon,” recalling the fact that Lebanon had been a French colony between the world wars. At one point during Chapter XI (which runs from 6:04 to 6:12), Cléo rides through Parc Montsouris in a cab and notices a building that seems to have been designed in the mode of an Arabian palace. Indeed, when Cléo asks what the building is, and Antoine simply tells her that it is an observatory, she asks him whether the observatory is from 1001 Nights (aka The Arabian Nights), referring, of course, to the well-knowncollection of exotic Middle Eastern folk tales, a source, in fact, from which many in the West have derived the bulk of their ideas about Middle Eastern life and culture since they were first translated into French and English in the early eighteenth century, even though the tales are clearly not realistic. This observatory was originally constructed for the Universal Exhibition of 1867 and was actually a replica of the residence of the Deys (rulers) of Tunis and was only later converted into an observatory. Such exhibitions (and this building in particular) were thus very much a part of the constellation of images that Edward Said has referred to as “Orientalism,” through which both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars and artists in France, England, and elsewhere, (inaccurately) described the Middle East in ways that were designed to make Europe appear more advanced and more civilized, thus helping to justify European colonial expansion into the Middle East.
The brief appearance of this observatory in Cléo thus serves as a reminder of Francee’s colonialist legacy, and Cléo’s own comment makes sure that we notice. Of course, while Cléo ultimately reveals to Antoine that her real name is “Florence,” she notes to him that everyone calls her “Cléo” (which, she explains is a shortened form of “Cleopatra,” or “Cléopatre” in French). “Cléo Victoire,” then, is most likely a stage name, chosen for its exotic feel, while the link to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is another reminder of the legacy of Orientalism, which has often focused on the supposedly exotic sexuality of Middle Eastern women. As Booker and Daraiseh point out, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is
“perhaps the central image of the seductiveness and potential power of Eastern women in all of Western film. Indeed, though a real historical figure, Cleopatra is by now much better known, at least in the West, for her depictions in Western culture than for her real historical presence. Cleopatra, in fact, has been memorialized as a figure of irresistible sexual charm in Western culture at least since Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607), with her most influential visual representation in the West being provided by the performance of [Elizabeth] Taylor in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 film” (55).
Of course, that this film was released just a year after Cléo from 5 to 7 clearly shows that this vision of Cleopatra was still well established in Western culture in the early 1960s (as, in fact, it still is today, as we can see in such examples as the music video for Katy Perry’s 2013 pop hit “Dark Horse”). And, of course, Cléo acknowledges the exotic reputation of Cleopatra when Antoine responds to the news of Cleo’s full name by noting that “Cleopatra is Egypt, the Sphinx … and the asp; a tigress.”
In short, while Cléo is not an openly political film, it does provide important reminders of the political climate in a France that was not only coming to terms with the end of an era of colonial power at the beginning of the 1960s but that also had a lot to answer for in terms of its policies in Algeria and elsewhere in the empire. This situation, of course, would contribute directly to the rise of a strongly anti-authoritarian youth movement in France in the 1960s, culminating in the major unrest that began in May of 1968, bringing the French economy to a standstill and causing many to fear the possibility of an all-out revolution or civil war. At one point, for example, the French national government ceased to function after its president Charles de Gaulle, fled the country to take refuge in Germany.
Of course, the most important political points made in Cléo from 5 to 7 are feminist ones.
For example, the message involving Godard’s sunglasses in the embedded silent film also resonates with the theme of looking and perspective that runs throughout the film. This theme, of course, implicates viewers of the film, who are themselves looking at the events of the film as they occur, a fact that is emphasized by the way in which we see Cléo and Dorothée watching the film from the projection booth from which Dorothée’s boyfriend, Raoul, is projecting the film. Perhaps the most important way in which this theme plays out involves Cléo’s own attitudes. As the film opens, Cléo, as both a beautiful woman and a professional performer, is accustomed to being looked at. The relevant concept here, of course, is the so-called male gaze, a term introduced by British art theorist John Berger but that received its widest attention after it was used by British cultural theorist Laura Mulvey to make feminist points about conventional filmmaking practices, especially in Hollywood. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first published in Screen in 1975 and later included in the collection Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), Mulvey brought prominence to this concept by noting the way in which traditional Hollywood film has typically generated visual pleasure by means of three kinds of “looks,” or visual points of view: the look of the male characters within the narrative, the look of the camera, and the look of the spectator in the audience. Of these, according to Mulvey, the third is the most important, but all of the visual aspects of film are designed primarily to provide both pleasure and self-actualization to the male spectator by exploring a woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.”
To an extent, simply making a woman so clearly the central character of Cléo from 5 to 7 already goes a long way toward overcoming the reliance of traditional Hollywood film on the male gaze. In Cléo, however, this particular solution is complicated by the fact that, early in the film, Cléo herself seems to accept so unquestioningly her “to-be-looked-at-ness.” As is emphasized by the prominence of mirrors in the film, Cléo seems both accustomed to being looked at by men and to looking at herself as men might see her. To this extent, she is something like the doll-like figure played by Anna Karina in the embedded silent film. However, this situation changes dramatically in the course of the film, as Cléo is transformed from the status of looked-at object to the status of looking subject.
There is, in fact, one particular moment in the film, also involving a mirror, that seems to mark a turning point for Cléo in this regard. Back in her spacious loft apartment, during Chapter VII at roughly the midpoint of the film, Cléo has just had a visit from her half-hearted lover and from two men are helping her develop songs to add to her repertoire, sings one of the new songs and is overcome by its references to sickness and death. In one lyric, she sings, “On m’aura mise en terre / Seule, laide et livide” (“I will be have been buried / Alone, ugly, and pale”). She sends the men away, changes clothes, and looks at herself in a mirror, repeating the line “Seule, laide et livide.” She then tears off the blonde wig she has been wearing throughout the film to this point, signifying her rejection of the superficial role she has been playing as a minor pop star. The possibility of looming death has made her realize that there are more important things than looking good. Then, in the second half of the film, she will consistently play the role of active looker, rather than merely being something to be looked at.
In the second half of the film, Cléo plays the part of looker at almost every point, as when she sees Dorothée posing nude in a sculpting studio, watches the silent film, or observes street performers (a man who swallows and then spits out frogs, a man who pierces his arm with an iron rod). This is not to say that Cléo completely overcomes her previous narcissistic tendencies. Thus, shortly before they view the silent film, she tells Dorothée about her possible cancer, noting that she is glad that the problem is located in her abdomen, where no one will be able to see it. Then, immediately after viewing the film, Cléo drops and breaks a mirror and is horrified. Granted, this reaction is less a matter of narcissism and more a matter of a common superstition about the bad luck associated with mirrors. Still, given the emphasis on mirrors in the first half of the film, which has invested mirrors with a strong symbolic meaning, it is difficult not to see this broken mirror as a symbol of Cléo’s liberation from her former looked-at-ness, or to see her reaction as partly a sign of how difficult this transition can be.
Soon afterward, as Cléo walks through Parc Montsouris, she dances and sings down a flight of rustic steps, singing a song that seems narcissistic. It is important, however, that no one is watching as she performs, and it’s a very low-key moment. She is simply performing for her own amusement—and perhaps to distract her from her anxieties about her medical results. She is not, however, performing to be seen by anyone, male or otherwise, so that the words of the song (“My precious and capricious body / The azure of my daring eyes / My alluring figure is the bait / That will never deceive / And everyone longs to taste.”) become almost a parody of the typical moment of the male gaze, rather than an enactment of it.
We have seen Cléo in an almost scripted conversation with her lover, in which both of them seem merely to be playing roles rather than acting from genuine passion. Her later interaction with Antoine is much more meaningful and sincere, despite the fact that the two barely know each other. But here again, Cléo does not function as a typical object of the male gaze. Antoine will notice her beauty and even ask for a photo with her with which he can impress his fellow soldiers when he gets back to Algeria. But this does not seem to be a regular “pick-up.” Antoine is already practically on his way to the train station when they meet, and he simply seems to want to talk with her for a while before he leaves.
And talk he does, almost ceaselessly. He turns out to be a diverting companion for Cléo in the moments leading up to her much-anticipated medical verdict, but that is partly because he spends so much of the time mansplaining about various topics that she has little time to focus on her own problems. And, importantly, Cléo clearly recognizes his mansplaining for what it is, occasionally chiding him for it. (“You’re always teaching something,” she remarks, and “You’ve always got the answers.”) She is clearly more amused than impressed (or put off) by the incessant flow of knowledge that comes from her new acquaintance.
When he hears about her possible cancer, Antoine tells Cléo that they are really very much in the same boat, presumably in reference to the fact that he is headed back to the Algerian War, so that his life, too, will be threatened. On a more general existentialist level, though, they are both in the same boat because all humans at every point in their lives are moving nearer to death, mostly with little idea of when that death might come.
This aspect of the film is again emphasized in that strange moment just after Cléo and Antoine get on that bus, when they observe a newborn infant being carried in an incubator before being loaded into the back of a vehicle. “It looks like Snow White’s coffin,” says a woman’s voice, off-screen, but of course we know that Snow White will, in fact, be reborn after her apparent death. Meanwhile, this glass-enclosed incubator/coffin also links back to the song sung by Cléo in her apartment. This song includes the line “Morte au cercueil de verre” (“A corpse in a crystal bier”), and it would appear that this strange moment is meant to link back to that line. Indeed, as Ungar notes, the soundtrack at this point has shifted to the tune of that earlier song, reinforcing the connection and suggesting that birth and death are both part of the same cycle (85).
When Cléo and Antoine arrive at the hospital, they discover that Dr. Valineau has already left for the day, which comes as a great disappointment both to Cléo and to us as viewers. Then, oddly, they run into the doctor (played by Robert Postec) as he drives by them on the street. Virtually making light of the momentous news he is bearing, the doctor doesn’t actually deliver a direct diagnosis, but instead merely says, in a rather offhand manner, that “two months of chemotherapy should set things right.” (Before doing so, he removes his sunglasses, recalling Godard’s gesture in the silent film and thus suggesting that he will be looking at things from an optimistic perspective.) The obvious implication is that Cléo does, indeed, have cancer, but that even this dreaded diagnosis does not have to be the end of the world, undermining the drama of the moment. This moment is, of course, open to a great deal of interpretation, including whether the doctor is being straightforward, or kind, or merely flippant. In any case, as Cléo and Antoine walk away together, she declares that she is happy and no longer afraid, though it is not entirely clear what we are to make of this declaration. At film’s end, they share a mutual look, undermining the one-way tradition of the male gaze. There is, however, no dramatic conclusion. From an existentialist perspective, life is continuous and does not involve such conclusions.
Booker, M. Keith, and Isra Daraiseh. Consumerist Orientalism: The Convergence of Arab and American Popular Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism. I. B. Tauris, 2019.
Neroni, Hilary. Feminist Film Theory and Cléo from 5 to 7. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage-Random House, 1979.
Ungar, Steven. Cléo de 5 a 7. 2nd edition, British Film Institute/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.
 The Paris Observatory was eventually moved to more a more modern facility and this one fell into disuse. It burned in 1991 and was torn down.
 France played a central role in developing this stereotype, which was heavily influenced by reports from Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and from reports by Gustave Flaubert of his own travels (and sexual adventures) in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
 One of these men, Bob the piano player, is played by Michel Legrand, who wrote the score of this film and who would go on to be one of the most successful composers of film music in the second half of the twentieth century.