Agnes Varda’s second film Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), handles the superficiality and despair a young pop star battles around her own mortality. Varda structures her film around stark contrasts and in doing so ruptures Cleo’s extreme values as her character arcs.
The film opens in color where the camera looms above as the tarot cards are laid out. Cleo tenses and becomes hysterical when the death card is unveiled. She takes it as a sign that she has cancer and is doomed. The shots of her and the fortune teller are in black and white as is the entire rest of the film.
Cleo is placed alongside a cast of supporting female characters that emulate the modern woman – the modern woman Cleo is not comfortable with. When Cleo takes a taxi cab with her assistant, the driver is a woman in man’s clothes. The taxi driver was in the paper for standing up to a gang that refused to pay their fare one night. But to Cleo her risk is “disgusting”, and equally “disgusting” is her friend Dorothee who poses nude for sculptors without a blush. Cleo would much rather stay in her lofty luxurious flat in her ridiculously flamboyant white furred robe and lingerie as if she were a queen with a court waiting upon her.
The flat that Varda has for Cleo in itself is a conflict of values. The modern structure of the flat and its empty whiteness dominates the screen, in contrast to the classical dark furniture pieces sparsely placed about. Her grand post bed and vanity mirror make the room feel more like a stage then a living space. The hollowness of her lifestyle is made apparent even to Cleo. Her lover Jose comes to give her a kiss and completely objectifies her with dismissive pet names. Her pianist and lyricist arrive and play a prank on her to her vexation. When she sings the new song they have written for her she is moved to tears because she realizes that the singer’s dejected despair is her own. This is the turning point of the film, Cleo rejecting a false lifestyle as a femme fragile a feminine object retreats behind a black curtain. In a masterful stark cut from the black curtain, Cleo re-emerges clad in a black modern day dress. She yanks off her hair piece and storms out alone. Visually the transference of mood through color comes across and the white spacious room now seems darker because of the camera’s fixation on Cleo and her dark turn of mood.
Cleo wanders the city on her own feeling the eye of the public on her on the street and not on her enough in the café. She meets up with Dorothee but when her compact falls and cracks on the pavement Cleo again is taken in with fears of her impending death. They come across a scene where the public have gathered around the place of where a man has died. “The mirror was for him”, Dorothee reassures Cleo.
After she has dropped off Dorothee, Cleo orders her taxi to drop her off at a park, she strolls past children until she comes to a bridge beneath a waterfall where she meets an Algerian soldier. He is an intellectual trying to impress her with scientific facts and the mythic significance of their encounter. It is the longest day of summer and they are together. Cleo opens up to the soldier telling him her real name, Florence. She has decided to leave the role of her public identity for him. The soldier compares the two Florence the city of the Renassaince and Goddess of Summer versus Cleopatra a “tigress” and “temptress”. He is able to make her see the frivolity of her vain fears because of where he comes from in the warzone of the French Algiers merely by saying “In Algiers you’d be scared all the time, Dying for nothing that’s what upsets us”. He offers to go with her to hear the results of her tests if she will see him off at the station notices her ring, which catches the attention of more than one man admirer throughout the film. “A pearl with a frog”, Cleo describes it. “You and me”, the soldier concludes. Perhaps Varda is making a subtle reference to the tale of the Frog Prince, where a spoilt young princess unhappy with her life has to be humbled and taught a lesson through the help of frog, a man she perceives is much lower than herself.
Varda turns the power of superstition on its head. The motif of Cleo encounters reinforces the notion of mortality and at the same time the ridiculousness of superstition. At a shop window Cleo is fixated with a black hat. Her assistant Angela will not let her carry it home because it is not good to wear something new on a Tuesday. At the films turning point Cleo decides to spite fate and Angela’s warnings by wearing the black hat out that Tuesday only to eventually give it to her friend Dorothee. The tarot card, black hat, broken mirror, and broken glass window where a man died, Cleo recognizes each to be a momento mori a sign of death. The phrase “momento mori” comes from Latin and translates to “remember your own mortality”.
In the early portion of the film Cleo is constantly checking her appearance in mirrors another momento mori from classic art. She is afraid of loosing her looks “Ugliness is a kind of death, as long as I am beautiful I am even more alive than others” Cleo’s internal monologue is shared with the audience. When she perceived what her image means to most of the men around her from her lyricist and pianist to the men lusting after her in the street she feels objectified. She has made herself comfortable as a caged beauty, wandering into the city and having a real conversation of meaning with a stranger she begins to see that the other reflection the soldier sees in her is the person she wishes to be, Flo instead of the false Cleopatra.
In Cleo from 5 to 7 Varda captures the transformation of Cleo to live a life that is true to herself. In the final shot she shares a smile with the soldier and walks off with him at peace with the results of her tests and no longer checked by fears or stereotypes.