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Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” is 90 Minutes Long

>In France, the afternoon hours from five to seven are known as the hours when lovers meet. On this afternoon, nothing could be further from Cleo’s mind than sex. She is counting out the minutes until she learns the results from tests she believes will tell her she is dying from cancer. Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” is 90 minutes long, but its clock seems to tick along with Cleo’s.

Varda is sometimes referred to as the godmother of the French New Wave. I have been guilty of that myself. Nothing could be more unfair. Varda is its very soul, and only the fact that she is a woman, I fear, prevented her from being routinely included with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer and for that matter her husband Jacques Demy. The passage of time has been kinder to her films than some of theirs, and “Cléo from 5 to 7” plays today as startlingly modern. Released in 1962, it seems as innovative and influential as any New Wave film.

Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a fresh-faced, perky young pop singer who has yet to experience great fame, although she has a few songs on the radio and on juke boxes. Wandering into a cafe, she plays one of her songs and we overhead a woman complaining to her table companion about the “noise.” I don’t know if Cléo hears that, even if we do. One of the devices in the film is to note the casual conversations of other Parisians that take place near Cléo as she passes her time. In another cafe, two lovers are breaking up, for example.

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There is something psychologically accurate about this. When you fear your death is near, you become aware of other people in a new way. Yes, you think of the others, you think your life is going on its merry way, but think of me–I have to die. Cléo’s awareness of that deepens a film that is otherwise about mostly trivial events.

She begins at 5 p.m, for example, by visiting a reader of the Tarot deck. The cards are seen in color in an otherwise b&w film. We aren’t Tarot readers, but they look alarming to us. The Hanged Man and Death make their ominous appearances, and the Tarot reader reassures Cléo, as such readers always do, that the cards “can mean many things.” Later, when Cléo asks for her palm to be read, the reader looks at it and says, “I don’t read palms.” Not a good sign. Cléo seems a shallow enough woman that these portents depress her.

Wandering through Paris accompanied by her maid, she stops in a hat shop and tries on many hats, which are reflected back at her in countless mirrors. Which look will she adopt for the moment? It is a summer day, and yet she chooses a black fur hat, which crowns her head as a storm warning.

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Cléo and the maid return to her apartment, which contains a piano, a bed, two tussling kittens and a lot of empty space. She occupies the bed as a sort of throne, and receives her lover (José Luis de Vilallonga) in a scene that for both of them is clearly more ceremony than passion. One meets one’s lover between 5 and 7? Very well then, they will behave as expected. Also in attendance is Bob, her rehearsal pianist, played by Michel Legrand, the film’s composer.