“Take another card,” a fortune teller (Loye Payen) instructs the tearful young woman (Corinne Marchand) sitting across the table from her at the start of Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7. Awaiting a potential cancer diagnosis, singer Cléo Victoire has come to Madame Irma in hopes of receiving some sort of comfort or reason for hope. So far, her tarot reading has been less than encouraging, and although Madame Irma has tried to remain positive throughout, even she jumps back in alarm when she turns over the next card and reveals a skeleton holding a scythe. “This card is not necessarily death’s. It means a complete transformation of your whole being,” the fortune teller says, still endeavoring to make the best of it, but Cléo doesn’t want to hear any more: “I’ve known for two days. I don’t need the results of the tests.” Nevertheless, she immediately asks Madame Irma to read her palm, as if that might reveal something that will cancel out the rest; Madame Irma gazes down at it for a few moments, looks up at Cléo’s face, and finally declares that she can’t read hands. “Is it so bad…?” Cléo asks, bursting into sobs. She leaves in a daze, and it’s not until she encounters a mirror downstairs that she begins to revive. “Ugliness is a kind of death,” she thinks while smiling at her reflection. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”
Mirrors are Cléo’s personal drug, irresistible and often capable of raising her spirits in a way nothing else can. In a shop, admiring herself in a succession of hats, she muses, “Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me.” Like any addiction, however, her obsession with her appearance is as destructive as it is pleasurable. Vain though she is, she’s also terribly, terribly insecure, even about her treasured good looks. She’s glad, for instance, that her possible cancer is in her belly rather than elsewhere because “at least you can’t see it there.” More tellingly still, she can’t understand how her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) has the courage to pose nude for sculptors. “I’d feel so exposed, afraid people would find a fault,” she says, a fear that Dorothée considers silly. “They’re looking at more than just me,” she explains to Cléo. “A shape, an idea… It’s as if I wasn’t there.”
In a sense, Cléo serves a similar purpose for songwriters Bob (Michel Legrand) and Maurice (Serge Korber), acting as both the muse and the medium for their art. The voice is hers, but she uses it to play whatever role they want her to play — a gold digger, perhaps, or a heartless seductress, in songs with titles like “Inconstant Girl” and “The Girl Who Lied.” They don’t think she has the necessary depth of feeling for a piece called “Cry of Love,” but she insists on rehearsing it and ends up feeling it too strongly, breaking down over its death-and-despair-filled lyrics. The songwriters, oblivious to the gravity of her health issues, write off her outburst as one of her usual caprices. “That’s all you ever say!” she shoots back. “You make me capricious! Soon I’ll just become a puppet!” Even her maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray), who knows all about Cléo’s situation, fails to sympathize with her. “What a performance,” she says — not about the song, but about the subsequent explosion.
Over and over, the people around Cléo describe her as a spoiled child and a drama queen. Her histrionics during the rehearsal are entirely forgivable, considering her anxiety over her looming test results, but those terms and others like them are used so often that there’s probably some truth to them. What’s more, they’re often spoken with at least a touch of indulgence, as if to say, “That’s just how Cléo is. Rather charming, isn’t it?” Naturally, this attitude does nothing to help her grow and overcome her faults, so she remains the immature person that everyone expects her to be.
Angèle, in particular, tends to reinforce Cléo’s worst qualities. “Such a drama queen,” she thinks while Cléo weeps after her visit to Madame Irma. “She could be happy but needs to be looked after. She’s a child.” A middle-aged widow who seems to want someone to take care of, Angèle coddles Cléo: doing her hair, picking up the clothing she throws on the floor, preparing a hot water bottle for her before she thinks to ask for it. She also happens to be extremely superstitious (no wearing anything new on a Tuesday, no taxis with unlucky numbers), which doesn’t help her already fear-riddled mistress, and she encourages Cléo to maintain a certain image to please others. “Don’t say you’re ill,” she instructs her when she thinks Bob and Maurice have arrived for the rehearsal. “Men hate illness.”
As it turns out, it’s not the songwriters at the door but Cléo’s boyfriend, José (José Luis de Vilallonga), though the same principle applies. José, who helped launch Cléo’s singing career, rarely sees her because he’s constantly busy with phone calls and appointments. Whatever their relationship once was, it now seems to be a matter of habit or convenience — affectionate, but lacking in substance, and Cléo obeys Angèle by keeping her health problems to herself instead of confiding in him. (He, like everyone else, regards her as a hypochondriac. “There’s always something the matter with you,” he teases upon finding her in bed with the hot water bottle. To cheer her up, he adds, “You’re strong. Your beauty is your health,” as if he can’t see past her exterior.) After his brief visit is over and Cléo is left alone with Angèle, she complains that he doesn’t take her seriously, doubts that he even loves her. “He’s in love,” Angèle insists. “He respects you. He spoils you.” But that’s not enough for Cléo. As she says shortly thereafter, during her tirade against the songwriters, “Everyone spoils me. No one loves me.”
Cléo may well have had these thoughts a thousand times before, and may have expressed them a thousand times too, but she’s probably never felt their truth so keenly. In less than a hour, by this point in the film, she’s set to receive what could be a death sentence. (The title Cléo from 5 to 7 refers to the film’s real-time format, and Cléo is supposed to call her doctor at 6:30 for her test results.) No matter how superficial and childish she might be, this crisis forces her to examine herself and her life — and, fittingly, she reflects with the help of a mirror. “My unchanging doll’s face… This ridiculous hat…” she thinks as she stands before a mirror hanging in a window. “I can’t see my own fears. I thought everyone looked at me. I only look at myself.”
As Cléo walks down the street and the camera shows her perspective, it actually does appear that everyone she passes is looking at her. In all likelihood, they’re simply staring at the camera itself, but these shots effectively convey Cléo’s unease. While she still wants to be noticed (she even enters a cafe and puts one of her own songs on the jukebox; nobody recognizes her), the faces she encounters — faces exaggerated by her imagination, possibly — come across as unfriendly, uncaring, indifferent to her and her problems. Interspersed with these strangers are shots of her own acquaintances gazing directly at her, but though both Angèle and José smile, there’s something detached about them, something too placid. The world is a frightening place, especially for a person in Cléo’s situation and with her superstitious, insecure nature. She admits that she’s afraid of “everything: birds, storms, lifts, needles, and now this great fear of death.” Wherever she goes, she encounters references to death, whether in casual phrases or in the constant talk about the war in Algeria, and it seems that there’s no place to turn for comfort.
What Cléo needs is love, genuine love, and the only way to get it is by giving up her obsession with her image, with having to be the woman that other people want and expect her to be. She takes a first tentative, symbolic step in this direction when, following her outburst at the rehearsal, she removes her wig and goes out in her natural hair — shorter, but perfectly nice, and decidedly less absurd than the wig with its pile of curls atop her head. Then, after she drops in on Dorothée, the two stop to watch a short silent comedy at the theater where Raoul (Raymond Cauchetier), Dorothée’s significant other, works. Besides giving Varda a chance to play around with a different style, this little diversion — which stars Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, along with several other French New Wave figures — has relevance to Cléo’s situation: Godard’s character sports the Breathless director’s trademark dark glasses, giving him a distorted, unduly tragic view of the world around him. Only when he takes them off can he see things as they really are and find happiness.
Of course, Cléo can’t change her entire way of thinking quite so easily as that. Upon leaving the theater, Dorothée drops her purse, shattering a small mirror. To Cléo, it’s nothing less than an omen of death, utterly terrifying; she can’t see that, like the tarot card depicting the skeleton with the scythe, it could represent a positive change, a farewell to superficiality. To the levelheaded Dorothée, meanwhile, it’s not a symbol at all. “Don’t be silly,” she says as she collects her scattered belongings. “It’s like breaking a plate.” Dorothée, a friend whom Cléo has known for years, is more straightforward and sympathetic than the other people in her life, but even she affectionately calls her a spoiled child at one point. It takes a total stranger to give her the fresh start she needs.
While walking alone through a park afterwards, Cléo meets a soldier named Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) who’s been visiting Paris while on leave from the war in Algeria and is about to return to the army. Although the flirtatious young man is, no doubt, initially attracted to Cléo by her appearance, he proves to be kindhearted, insightful and helpful, and the two quickly develop a rapport. For all his playful, romantic talk about her being Flora, the goddess of the newly arrived summer, he accepts her as she is, has no preconceived notions about her, so she can be herself without worrying about “being Cléo.” She goes so far as to tell him her real name: Florence. Their time together, though fleeting, is sufficient to show her a new path forward, and when Antoine realizes that Flora was actually the goddess of spring, which has just ended, it doesn’t seem as ominous as it might have only a few minutes earlier. The world hasn’t changed, but Cléo has. “My fear seems to be gone. I seem to be happy,” she tells him — a modest statement, yet, in its own small way, a complete transformation of her whole being.
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