Cleo 5 to 7 Agnes Varda (1962; France) Corinne Marchard
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 8th May 2022;ticket: £7
If the hat fits
I came out of Varda’s movie ‘Cleo 5-7’ with feeling of joy. It’s a film that works by following protagonist Cleo as she moves from a state of fear about her cancer, to discovering how to embrace the life in her body.
As with many of Varda’s scripts her film implies a moral statement pointing to the ways in which women have to take on responsibility for themselves if they are to control of their own lives in the maelstrom of the social and sexual revolutions characterising the latter part of the 20th century.
At the core of Varda’s thinking is the perception that some women (certainly not all women) are conditioned to be passive. This feeling of ‘in-built fear’ is the emotional starting point for ‘Cleo 5-7’. The type of fear Varda points to in Cleo is not actual primal physical fear. It is fear as: ‘state of mind’. Fear as a default condition. It is ‘fear of’ a learned inhibitory device that stops pro-action and initiative If women were to change their position in relation to men they would have to find ways to undo/recaste their conditioning. If women are to break the mould of passivity first they have to break the mould of fear.
What is significant in ‘Cleo 5 to 7’ is that Varda’s script suggests that being able move out of ‘fear’ is not necessarily a conscious cognitive process, rather it can be the ability to listen to the unconscious, to trust one’s instincts.
Varda’s feminist moral tales are strongest when the subjects of her scripts are not feminists or proto-feminists but women in situations (such as waiting for the result of a cancer test) that pose new questions about who they are. Even though she is a professional singer/entertainer, Cleo is a woman who from the outset of the movie exhibits the ordinary range of behaviours and responses of someone of her class and sex. In ‘Cleo 5-7’ there isn’t one moment of epiphany, a key realisation which causes her to question how she is living. Naturalistically there are a series of small moments which push Cleo into finding something within herself by trusting to her own actions.
In the opening sequence of ‘Cleo 5-7’, Cleo is sitting across the table from a psychic who is reading the Tarot Cards for her. She is there out of fear, a fear of cancer that she has projected into her future and is taking over control of her psyche. The Tarot reading is filmed as an exercise in pure terror. In the main it is covered by an overhead shot with short sharp cutaways: the anxious face of Cleo; the hardened face of the reader. The ‘overhead’ places the audience in a privileged position to see for themselves what is happening, rather than viewing the table filmed as from Cleo’s point of view. This is not a point of view movie: it’s about seeing. The turning over of the oracular cards is a psychic assault hammering out the design of fate itself. Like a conjuror, the hands of the reader move swiftly deftly with practiced familiarity as she shuffles spreads turns deals Cleo the cards which snap and crackle like shots to the heart finally revealing the image of ‘the hanged man’. The death card. Cancer; no future no life only an intensification of fear and confusion in Cleo.
But after the reading something shifts inside Cleo. On her way back home with her companion a sudden whim leads her to stop at a hat shop and buy herself a black hat. It’s a purchase only explicable as an impulse rising up out of her unconscious mind. It’s a comedic scene that leads to the totemic purchase of a ridiculous hat that sits on top of her head like a black flag. Her openness to the promptings of her unconscious is a sign that at some level Cleo is hearing something.
As the scenario unfolds Cleo and her cancer appear ever more enmeshed in the manipulations of those concerned not with her, but with her image: her factotum, her boyfriend, her song writers. But somehow, perhaps it is the black hat and the incessant press upon her to conform to the needs of others, she takes a radical course of action: to say, “No!” To all of them, to get away, find a line of flight out and away, anywhere, to be alone. She puts on a black dress, ditches her blond wig, takes the black hat and quits the house.
Cleo starts to walk; to arbitrarily allow random moments to lead her. Walking, going about, meeting others are the enabling mediators of her release. She allows herself to experience an immanent life, an immediacy of life, to live without anticipation, engrained expectation or history, to be alive on her own terms to be at one with her life and her death. The strength of Varda’s script and direction is that there are no statements no analyses no explanations. Varda structures ‘Cleo 5-7’ so that we can see the change in Cleo unfolding and understand something of what is happening.
The defining structure of ‘Cleo 5-7’ is that it is a film about the audience ‘seeing’. . In this seeing the audience are not so much spectators but active witnesses to the events in Cleo’s life. As she changes and moves to engage with life and finding joy, we as witnesses we are still with her as we leave the cinema