Cléo from 5 to 7
Doesn’t dusk make you want to travel? (Cinéma vérité: Part 2 of 4)
Sometimes, when I’m about to watch a movie, and I know it’s considered one of the all-time greats, I’ll just sit on the couch in silence, appreciating that I’m about to (hopefully) enjoy something akin to a rare aged wine or a Michelin star restaurant. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) was one such experience, and it did not disappoint: it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve seen.
Though distinct in their approaches, the French New Wave and Cinema vérité share a rebellious spirit that redefined the filmmaking landscape. Eat it, Hollywood. The French New Wave, which emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s with films like François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), challenged traditional filmmaking norms. Directors favored spontaneity, unconventional narrative techniques, and a sense of realism, laying the groundwork for what felt like more liberated cinematic expression. As the French New Wave pushed the boundaries of storytelling, it inadvertently informed the ethos of Cinema vérité. Cinema vérité’s emphasis on capturing raw, unscripted moments of reality drew inspiration from the French New Wave's rejection of studio-bound rigidity. In this way, the French New Wave is a pioneering influence that shaped the ethos of capturing authentic, unfiltered moments in filmmaking.
A paragon of the French New Wave and a reminder that Agnes Varda is one of the greatest, Cléo from 5 to 7 is a film that will make you yearn for travel. Sadly, it will remind you that life is short, but oh so sweet. The film feels heavy and solemn while still being playful and light on its feet. Cléo, for the next two hours (from 5 to 7), is waiting to receive the news of whether or not she has cancer from her doctor—the news of whether she will live or die.
At its core is a film of personal trial, but around that core is a deep mantle of testament to the greatness of Paris. An extended sequence in a taxi, listening to the local Paris news on the radio while navigating the city streets, gives one a vaporous hit of the thrill of travel. In another sequence, Cléo walks around aimlessly, taking in the streetlife, one performer swallowing frogs, much to her disgust. We get a taste of the time and feel of Paris that emulates the feel of travel itself. This traversal style foreshadows the distilled style of vérité that would follow in the next decade. Mind you; travel is a clear theme of the film despite its setting being one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world: It instills wanderlust from an organic place of wanting to get out of Paris, not from a place of being enamored with Paris itself, though for non-French viewers it will be hard not to be enamored with Paris.
In one sequence, Cléo is crying in a cafe, lamenting her medical tests; a waiter at the cafe reaches into his proverbial waiter’s toolbox to see if he can make her feel better: he asks her if she’d like a coffee. She would. While a conversation about coffee strikes up with another waiter and Cléo’s friend, the camera subtly jumps to a new point of view, showing us a couple at the next table. The coffee conversation fades slightly as the couple’s argument takes center stage. Multiple times, the film will expose you to background conversations, bringing them to the fore and giving you a sense of place. The laudable and meticulous editing (by Janine Verneau and Pascale Laverrière, the former a frequent collaborator with Varda) in Cléo from 5 to 7 paired with the active camera work makes one feel like they’re watching multiple cameras filming real action. It’s what makes these background/foreground transitions feel seamless.
Despite the seeming heaviness of the plot, this is likely the lightest and most enjoyable experience you will have watching a movie in the Cinema Vérité wheelhouse. Corinne Marchand makes Cléo’s tentatively grasped carefree attitude seem as effortless as Antoine Bourseiller makes lovable French scalawags. The vérité of the film is rooted in its structure: a real-time look into the life of a woman who believes she is going to die soon, and we’re along for the ride as she awaits the verdict from her doctor. What would you do while waiting for potentially life-changing news? Where is the first place you would go? The second place you would go? Would you go home and hang out in your beautiful Parisian apartment with your assistant, your kittens, your wardrobe, and your swing and wait for your songwriters to stop by? I would. Would it take your mind off of your troubles, off of the light slowly fading from the sky, your cheek no longer warmed in its glow?
Cléo from 5 to 7
Written and Directed by Agnès Varda
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): The best move would be to treat yourself to what may be the finest Criterion boxset available. If that’s not your speed, you can stream the film on Criterion Channel, Max, and Kanopy.
You’ll like this if you like: The French Dispatch (2021), Birdman (2014) or Barbie (2023)