Cléo from 5 to 7

Year of release: 1962              Directed by Agnès Varda.                  Starring Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, and Dorothée Blanck.

Considering the techniques used in Cléo from 5 to 7, the film opens with two anomalies: a sequence shot in color and use of a God’s point of view shot. After the opening scene in which Cléo (Corinne Marchand) visits a fortune teller and asks to learn her fate via Tarot cards, we never see either technique again. The camera angle enables us to focus solely on the Tarot cards, which both Cléo and the fortune teller stare at intently, and which Cléo believes will determine whether her cancer test comes back positive or negative in two hours.

Staring or gazing, not only at others but ourselves as well, or even at mundane objects such as hats. It’s what everyone does, either intentionally or not, and the characters in Cléo from 5 to 7 are no exception. Beginning with the staring at the Tarot cards, director Angès Varda allows the viewer to gaze along with the characters. As soon as Cléo leaves, she stops by parallel mirrors and stares at infinite repetitions of herself, convinced that she has cancer, and taking solace that she still has her beauty, placing herself under the same ruthless examination that the world does.

The next 84 minutes play out in real time as Cléo prepares to hear the results of her biopsy, seeking sympathy from friends, lovers, and coworkers but receiving none. As her assistant Angèle (Dominique Davray) tells her, “Men will think she’s faking her illness for attention.” Angèle sees nothing wrong with this, accepting the notion that men gaze at women for their beauty as something women should relish. As a famous pop singer, Cléo has long relished this sort of attention, but faced with her impending morality, interactions with her boyfriend, songwriters, and even her assistant become trying.

Then she visits her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) who poses nude for a sculpting class. It’s the ultimate example of someone subjecting themselves to another’s gaze, and yet these artists clearly see her as an entire person and are not gazing for their own satisfaction. As might be expected, Cléo says she is way too self-conscious to be comfortable with nude modeling, but Dorothée says it is a joyful, liberating experience in which she can accept her body as it is, feeling neither proud nor ashamed of it, throwing off the gaze of society.

It’s the most clarifying moment in the film, in which we’re reminded why we gaze at any work of art: to see an entire picture inviting us beyond ourselves into a greater understanding of the whole. We see Cleo’s fear of death, the gaze she has subjected herself to, and her superstitious rituals for luck. It’s telling that she starts breaking those superstitions once she meets Dorothée. As Dorothée says, she doesn’t find nude modeling immodest; the transparency reveals truth.

And Varda herself does not let the viewer forget that he is gazing as well, challenging him to reconsider the way he looks at anything, not just the film itself. Several well placed cuts break the 30-degree rule, notably reminding us that we are gazing through the eye of the camera. For the hour and a half in which Cléo learns a new way to see herself and the world, Varda invites the viewer to do so as well.


Personal Recommendation: A-

Suggested Audience: Adults


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