Agnès Varda

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Roger Manvell

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[Cléo de 5 à 7] is a film that very much depends on the extent and nature of the sympathy you can find for the particular girl with whom you are invited to spend a hundred minutes during a crucial period in her life. She has two hours to wait for the results of a medical examination which will confirm whether or not she has cancer and, if she has it, whether or not she can be saved from death.

Cléo is a vain, spoiled, revue artist at the beginning of a successful career as a popular singer…. Yet she is not altogether worthless; she is in fact still quite human, though the vanity of her life has given her neither the emotional nor the spiritual resources with which to face a period of endurance such as this. So at the point when we discover her she is pathetic and vulnerable, facing a particular test of character which any one of us might have to face at any time….

Cléo is discovering that everything that happens to her now is a heightened, almost symbolic experience. The streets that seem real and ordinary to us … become alien and unreal to her; her lover comes and goes, but there is no human or physical contact; one of the new songs composed for her, 'Sans Toi', has a bitter and melancholy significance. Everything is memento mori….

[Cléo de 5 à 7] is a film of personal vision, and its strength lies in this. The structure to which Agnès Varda commits herself requires a minute by minute observation of events, and one's interest is sometimes threatened by the repetition involved in Cléo walking short distances in the streets and taking taxi and bus rides which tend to seem interminable because they literally mark time in the story and reveal nothing new. But these are small, incidental weaknesses set against the inner truth of the film as a whole. The passing characterisations are all good…. The lively Paris locations, which give constant meaning to the film, are admirably photographed. Cléo is, as it were, tethered to these streets like some sacrificial victim waiting the knife; her release from the torture of her familiar environment only comes when she goes away to the quiet park where she finds [a young soldier who is a cheerful and ironic observer of life].

But this is also a Latin film, and there are moments of cruelty and macabre shock, particularly the insistent, recurrent images of the street entertainer swallowing live frogs. But against this is the quite unsentimental humanity of Cléo's relationship with the soldier and the ambiguity of the end, when the doctor gives his enigmatic, dead-pan verdict on her future….

[The film] gathers humanity as the minutes pass, and represents a considerable achievement for Agnès Varda.

Roger Manvell, "'Cleo, de 5 à 7'" (© copyright Roger Manvell 1962; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 9, No. 3, December, 1962, p. 38.

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