' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962)

Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962)

In 2012, just after being diagnosed with cancer, Tig Notaro, comedian by trade, comedian by nature, took the stage at an L.A. nightclub to work through her feelings with a comedy set that was less traditional one-liners than observations about how life guts you remixed with a comic’s sensibility. At the end, she told a joke about being passed on I-405 by a bee, in which the punchline became how pointless the joke was in the midst of everything else, sort of working as this skewering of the need to maintain a Brave Face in the wake of such news, to soldier on, so to speak, by performing when all you really want to do is tear down the walls between performance and reality and be you.

Cléo (Corinne Marchand) doesn’t really struggle to tear down those walls so much as existentially wander between them in “Cléo 5 to 7”, a title referencing the time between when Cléo gets a biopsy and when she will be given her diagnosis to determine whether or not she has cancer. Does she? Well, the fortune teller that opens the movie, which writer/director Agnès Varda shoots in color, which seems to suggest some sort of inverted “Wizard of Oz”, where the land of make-believe isn’t so grand, portends doom and gloom and Cleo takes that prophesy seriously, wandering into a hat shop and trying out the wears, sort of a French New Wave version of Bugs’ Bonnets, settling on a black hat, as if choosing to play the part of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Cléo, as we learn, is a singer, though not necessarily a famous one, evoked when she plays her own song on a jukebox and the café crowd only seems bothered by it. Still, she has a performer’s need for approval, seen in the way she strolls through the crowded streets, reveling in the constant male gaze, and then almost frightened when the gaze is turned on someone else, like a street performer eating frogs, where the expressions of Marchand don’t quite match up to the innocence of the moment, like the lack of attention spurs something akin to horrified confusion. Later, in her apartment she throws a fit when her songwriters aren’t meeting her needs, and when they do, the camera closes in on her as she sings, transforming everything to black, only her and no one else. Get the hell out of her close-up!

It’s not simply, I don’t think, that she’s a narcissist, though that’s clearly the case, reflected (literally, figuratively) in Varda’s mirrors motif, but that the possibility of a life-taking disease can push away the world, because what does the world matter when it seems foregone that you are on the verge of exiting it. Look no further than the scene where Cléo and her maid cum parental figure, who only seems to reinforce her charge’s narcissism, catch a taxi, riding through the streets of Paris as their conversation blends in with news reports of very serious real world things emanating from the radio, two dialogues running concurrently.

Her self-involvement must eventually give way to enlightenment, and so it does, though very much in that French New Wave-y way, not yoking her enlightenment to staring down death with some grand feat of heroism so much as embracing mortality by way of embracing meaninglessness. This happens when she meets a soldier, Antoine, on leave and about to return to Algeria, who remarks that the soldiers “die all the time for nothing”, suggesting our mortality is tied up in meaninglessness, which is an idea that “Cléo From 5 to 7” embraces rather than refute. In coming to grips with that ultimate cosmic void, she is finally able to plant her feet in the earth, jettisoning her stage name and accepting who she is. And as the biopsy result draws near, Varda does not drum up suspense so much as let it fall away, plunging her characters into the ever-elusive moment, a lengthy concluding vignette emitting an air that almost feels more like fantasy than reality, which is maybe how the ever-elusive moment actually feels.

No comments: