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[Why Watch This- Retro Movie Reviews] Cleo de 5 a 7

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cityWhile watching Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962) (also know as Cleo from 5 to 7) over the weekend, I was struck by how relevant the film feels in 2014. The first time I saw it 20 years ago I was more caught up in the French New Wavy-ness of it. I love a good French New Wave film- all hand held cameras and black and white, the life and light of the Paris streets, that is the stuff that gets my blood pumping.

But what is fascinating about Cleo de 5 a 7 is that it operates on two levels. The first level is the stark almost documentary style of the film. The second level is how we perceive the world through Cleo’s point of view. The film happens in real time from 5 pm to 7 pm (technically 6:30 pm) as Cleo waits to call her doctor to find out if she has cancer.

The film starts with Cleo at the fortune teller having tarot cards read. From there, we follow her to a café, to a hat store and back to her aparmirrortment. Cleo, portrayed by the flawless Corrine Marchand, is a pop singer, she is beautiful, she moves through the streets of Paris with her hair piled on top of her head in a crazy concoction. Everywhere she goes there are mirrors and reflective surfaces that she uses to gaze at herself. She consoles herself: “Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I am beautiful I am more alive than them.” Ok, so maybe it’s hard to sympathize with Miss Cleo, but she is beautiful, so, you know, go with it.

Once Cleo and her maid return to her apartment, what we had suspected to be true becomes clear. swingNobody knows the gravity of Cleo’s illness and she doesn’t tell them because they don’t take her seriously. Her rich boyfriend stops by (played by José Luis de Vilallonga who you may recognize as the man Holly Golightly almost marries in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and flatters her, calls her “his pearl,” but seems unconcerned that she is not feeling well. Her songwriters come and make fun of her for being sick, clearly they believe Cleo to be spoiled and frivolous. I mean, come on, she has a swing in her bedroom. A swing.

But then, in an emotional moment Cleo sings the affecting song “Sans Toi” (Without You) and it hits a little too close to home. In a fit of emotion, she pulls the crazy wig from her head (it’s a wig?!), puts on a black dress and hits the Parisian streets again. Even though Cleo is more beautiful now, with her platinum hair in a smart cut, her black dress with the pleats, the emotions are different. You feel her tension and her isolation as she walks the streets. She seeks out an old friend to confide in, and then eventually ends up in the park where she meets a soldier who is about to ship off to fight in the Algerian war. (If there are any other French New Wave geeks out there, you may enjoy the short little film she watches with her friend that stars Jean-Luc Goddard and Anna Karina. If you don’t know who those 2 people are, you may wonder what the point of the weird little short film is. What’s the point? Who knows, I don’t, watch and let’s discuss)

cafeDid I mention that Cleo is beautiful? Yeah, probably. What I noticed this time is how everyone else in this film is not. She moves through the streets and the cafes and all the faces you see are normal people, haggard, wrinkled, big noses and small eyes. They all turn to watch her, look at her, because how can you not? She is a pearl, remember? Her new soldier friend refers to the two of them as “The pearl and the frog.” Cleo and the soldier form a quick bond. She tells him about her potential illness, he understands because he is about to go to war. We learn her real name is Florence and that Cleo is short for Cleopatra. Their scenes together are sweet, he teases her, they walk through the park. Eventually he convinces her to gbuso directly to the hospital to find out her diagnoses. He will go with her and then she can go to the train station with him to see him off to war. They make it to the hospital, they find the doctor and…I won’t give it away. Not knowing is half the fun.

Agnes Varda, the writer and director, was a pioneer of the French New Wave. Cleo is her second feature film. She is also considered to be a pioneer in feminist cinema. Prior to this she had made a documentary about how a pregnant woman relates to the Mouffetard, which is a famous outdoor food market in Paris. You may (or may not) be wondering to yourself how this is considered feminist cinema. A hungry pregnant woman goes to a food market. A shallow pop singer thinks she has cancer. I think it goes back to the film’s point of view. This is Cleo’s story and whether we like her or not, sympathize with her or not, we experience the world as she does for the 90 minutes we spend with her.

Even in 2014 there aren’t many movies or tv shows that have a strong female point of view, where the main female character is interesting, flawed, etc. and not just an accessory or afterthought to the male characters. I think too, it so relevant to the reality tv show world we live in right now, it’s kind of like what would Kim Kardashian do if she suddenly needed the world to take her seriously? I mean, I know, they would make a “very special episode” of KUWTK where there was some “grave” diagnosis, and in between the shameless product placement, we worried for a second that maybe Kim would die of some horrible disease or something.

Wait…it’s too easy right? You’d think less of me if I made the joke. But what if you knew Kim, you were her friend or her maid or something. Would you take her seriously? What if she walked out of her mega mansion in Calabasas and hit the streets. What if we felt her anxiety as the time ticks away, every second that she feels it, every minute that she feels it. We feel the slow minutes, as she maybe gets in a taxi and ridesoldiers through the streets of Calabasas, we feel the fast minutes as she laughs in a park with a total stranger. We feel her terror when she glimpses frightening ugly death masks in the window of some boutique in Malibu. Does this change how we feel about her?

We might think no, and it’s the same with Cleo, except that when she finds out, when she has her answer, we realize that it doesn’t even matter if it’s good news or bad news, it’s just that she knows the answer. Her relief is our relief and we all can’t help but smile.

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