Cléo from 5 to 7

(Agnès Varda, France/Italy, 1962)


Passionate Time


There have been many films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) to Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), devoted to the challenge of capturing or reconstituting the experience of real time drama – in which the time it takes for the story to unfold is exactly the same as the time it takes to view the film.


Agnès Varda’s classic Cléo from 5 to 7 dispenses with the single camera take concept that Hitchcock cleverly faked and Sokurov heroically maintained – it is as jazzily photographed and busily edited as any more conventional narrative film – but its scrupulousness with geography and physical space is so exact that it is possible to draw a precise map of its 1961 itinerary through Paris (as critic Roger Tailleur did when reviewing it in the pages of Positif magazine).


Varda’s only cheat, in fact, is to have titled it Cléo from 5 to 7 – rather than from 5 to 6.30(pm). (There’s also another, connotative rather then denotative, and also ironic, reason for that: 5 to 7, as Varda has explained, is the typical time for lovers’ rendezvous.) But if the film were only a virtuosic formal exercise, it would probably not have endured as the remarkable, affecting testament that it is.




The entire drama (and comedy) of the piece is based on the productive discrepancy between two very different sorts of time – the real clock-time, passing second by second, with its terminal point (deadline seems too grim a word) of the news that Cléo (Corinne Marchand) will receive from her doctor about her health condition; and what Pascal Bonitzer once called the “passionate time” known best from suspense-thrillers but common to all fiction film, the experience of time that contracts or expands according to how we feel or experience it. (1) Apprehension, boredom, desire … the film is a succession of these emotional states that, taken together, pose a counter-time, a time of the heart.


What an unlikely, surprising character Varda chose as the human vehicle for this passionate time. Cléo loves and suffers – and it is hard not to identify with her agonised wait for the medical word that will decide her future and her fate – but she’s also petulant, frivolous, vain, scatty. Varda, here as later in Le Bonheur (Happiness, 1965) and Vagabond (1985), avoids easy sentimentality and deliberately blocks the path to immediately sympathising with her heroine.


Marchand, superb in the role of Cléo, at the time evoked the gamine Jean Seberg of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle  (1960), and anticipated the pop phenomenon of the yé-yé singers in France. But she may seem even more peculiarly modern to a 21st century audience, a truly prophetic apparition: with her celebrity-narcissism, her taste for Tarot readings and various other superstitious signs, Cléo could well be a Paris Hilton-type, plugged into New Age fads. (At one stage, logically enough, Madonna was attached to a proposed remake – to be directed by Varda herself.)


Like Federico Fellini in the 1960s, Varda displayed a finely prescient sense for the rapid mutations in contemporary lifestyles; it is no surprise that she would go on to be one of the best documenters of the counterculture that kicked into gear by the end of that decade – and which, 30 years later, would reassert itself in the social practices of scavenging so lovingly recorded in The Gleaners and I (2000).


Varda’s career has often been yoked to the Nouvelle Vague centred on the directors associated with Cahiers du cinéma magazine. Her first feature, La Pointe courte (1956), is often regarded as the first Nouvelle Vague film, predating by three years the splash made by François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and others. It is easy to see what her films, in general, share with the mainstream of that famous movement: a breathtaking ability to swing in a moment from light to dark, comic to dramatic moods (something perfectly in sync with the giddy, passionate time of Cléo); and a taste for the hand-held camera, capturing on-the-run scenes shot spontaneously in the streets of Paris.


But Varda’s truer kinship was with the loose Left Bank group (as Richard Roud dubbed it) comprising herself, husband Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, among others. Signs of the so-called Left Bank sensibility are everywhere in Cléo. A radical left-wing consciousness makes itself apparent in the radio-fed references to the conflict then raging in Algeria (an inclusion which made Tailleur “fear in the darkness the probable presence of the censor”). (2) More profoundly telling is the Cubist-style, multi-perspectival approach characteristic of these filmmakers – the sense that it is not one person’s tale, but a story that belongs to everyone who passes in and out of its frame.


This is an unusual approach in the context of real-time cinema, which temperamentally prefers to follow a single character in his or her headlong path through urban space (as on each of the four separate screens in Mike Figgis’s execrable Time Code  [2000]). Varda, however, while respecting the time-space continuum of her premise, never ceases refracting her attention, racking focus on the lives, feelings and perspectives of all others who cross Cléo’s path. Hence the torch passes, often without a cut, to “Angèle [Dominique Davray] from 5.18 to 5.25” or “Antoine [Antoine Bourseiller] from 6.12 to 6.15”.


The most wonderful thing about Cléo from 5 to 7 is its air of freedom – evoked, paradoxically, within the very severe constraints of its real-time format, which must have posed a thousand challenges during shooting and post-production. The film is superbly playful, poking occasional holes in its own carefully built illusion of cascading moments – such as when an early shot of Cléo descending stairs is repeated, in an editing loop, three times (an evident reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase), or when she disappears behind a paravent to reappear instantly in a new outfit. Rich colour gives way to black and white after the credits: one of many reminders of the artifice of cinema.


The potentially least attractive aspect of Cléo’s character, her propensity to “act out” at the drop of hat, provides the film with its unique, modern register: this is, in a humorous, almost camp way, a histrionic film, lightly exaggerating itself at every turn – as, for instance, in the impossible proliferation of mirrors and reflective surfaces wherever Cléo finds herself, indoors or outdoors; or in the silent film-within-the-film pastiche featuring Godard and Anna Karina.


Cléo is also, in its sly way, a musical (shades, of course, of Demy’s work before and after 1962) – and no scene is more lyrical than that in which Cléo and her musical associates rehearse a new number, “Cri d’amour” (“Cry of Love”), a curious title for such a funereal and melancholic song.


“Sans toi” – without you”, sings Cléo, but the emotion the song prompts within her is purely reflective: it is her own imminent absence from the world that she is lamenting. In a single, mobile shot of just over two and a half minutes, Varda takes us into and out of a “musical moment”. This is a moment of mise en scène at its most plastic, transforming all its internal elements and wrenching them back to their initial state at the end.

Up until the engineering of this sublime, extended instant, everything in the scene is clutter, messing around, chaos, noise. But when Bob (Michel Legrand) stops clowning about with Plumitif (Serge Korber) and begins playing his slow tune on the piano, duly gesturing to Cléo to try the lyrics, all the pieces of the scene begin to change.

A tracking camera comes around the piano and isolates Cléo’s head positioned in front of a totally black backdrop. The voice gains echo; the piano gains an orchestra. The lighting on her face alters. It is no longer the casual run-through of a song never before glimpsed; Cléo now faces the camera and cries as she sings, as if it is her innermost testament. She has become a hallowed figure in musical and cinematic space; no longer an everyday character standing in a room, bounded by real time.

Finally, the moment breaks: the orchestra stops, and there is only Cléo’s voice to enounce the ultimate iteration of the fatal phrase “sans toi”. Varda executes a brutal zoom-out to restore the initial naturalism of the setting. But the rehearsal is now over. Cléo must flee to her next transformative encounter with fate, as the clock ticks …

Coming in the midst of the Nouvelle Vague, Cléo from 5 to 7 seemed to embody the prime obsession of all the “young cinema” movements of the 1960s: to evoke the eternal present, flashing by in a sustained intensity. Like Godard or Jerzy Skolimowski or Glauber Rocha in that heady period, Varda eschews flashbacks, and plunges us into the breathless present-tense unfolding of these precious 90 minutes in Cléo’s life.


Yet, via the dialectic of real time and passionate time, Varda also creates a complex double focus, leaping (as Tailleur observed) from the here (and now) to eternity, a cosmic vision. (3) In its final seconds, Cléo – even if her fate is not entirely decided or assured – is nonetheless released: into serenity, into love, and into a future that now seems possible beyond the second-to-second prison of clock-driven daily life.

MORE Varda: Du côté de la côte, Varda by Agnès




1. Pascal Bonitzer (trans. F. Ziolkowski), “Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth”, Wide Angle, Vol. 4 No. 4 (1981), pp. 56-63.

2. Roger Tailleur (trans. K. Larose), “Cléo: From Here to Eternity”, in Michel Ciment & Laurence Kardish (eds), Positif 50 Years: Selections from the French Film Journal (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), p. 77; original French in Positif, no. 44 (March 1962).

3. Ibid., p. 82.

© Adrian Martin September 2007 / March 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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