Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Contrasts of female Identity in Cleo From 5 to 7

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 cafĂ©. 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.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Adolescent Antihero of Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups

Truffaut draws a picture of social fallacy in the character of Antione Doinel in perhaps his most memorable film of the New Wave movement Les Quatre Cents Coups. A young teen in a dysfunctional family and a misfit at school, Antoine does not belong anywhere. Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical character choices lead Antione deeper into a web of trouble and establish him as a literary antihero.
Les Quatre Cents Coups opens in the classroom, where Antoine is made the scapegoat by his classmates for a forbidden pin up and humiliated when the instructor keeps him in at recess to write on the wall. Antoine’s role model Balzac the 19th century French author known for his dedication to meticulous realism is his source of inspiration. Antoine attempts to surpass his teacher’s expectations with an essay using Bazin’s philosophy and is accused of plagiarism. It is as though his mature intellectual interests are not even appreciated by the academic world.
At home Antoine fends for himself raking coal running errands and even wandering over to his mother’s vanity to play and explore. His mother, a working woman treats Antoine with the disdain reserved more for a servant than a son. Her cool attitude to both her husband and son reflect a deeply unhappy woman, trapped in a marriage of convenience. Her husband, Antoine’s adoptive father comes home full of humor and antics. As Antoine becomes more unruly he distances himself from the son he “gave his name” to and abandons him to his fate.
Antoine’s adventures in truancy with his only friend Rene leads him on a downward descent. He catches his mother kissing a man in the street. After the day’s adventure in an amusement park, Antoine has to answer to his teacher for his absence. Unable to forge an excusing letter from his parents, he tells his teacher that his mother is dead. Perhaps Truffaut attempts to suggest a Freudian projection of Antoine’s deep inner resentment against his mother’s cold upbringing on his life.
Rene attempts to look after Antoine, hiding him in a warehouse overnight and later keeping him in his own home. Like Antoine, Rene is a neglected and independent youth. But in Rene Truffaut casts a didactic contrast in social circumstances. Rene is privileged, he lives in a large spacious apartment, dresses well, and takes amusement by helping himself to his “inheritance” in his parents secret cash stash. For amusement he gets Antoine up to stealing a typewriter from his father’s work. When the heist goes wrong and Antoine is apprehended Rene abandons him to his fate.
Antoine goes through the justice system oblivious to the heavy consequences that are being set in place for the rest of his life. In a holding sell he casually smokes a cigarette in bed. His parents willingly surrender him over to a juvenile correction facility. There the rigid order of youth is a visual parallel to the school system Antoine began at the beginning of the film. There Antoine drifts from boy to boy in a naive daze. In a session with the psychiatrist off screen and remains on Antoine in a single long take as he divulges in a stream of conscious confessional. It is a scene reminiscent to spectators of the religious confessional booth. In a single long take Antoine answers directly to the unseen psychiatrist off-screen about his conflicted childhood passed from grandmother to mother and even his adolescent arousal and escapades around women.
Deserted by his friend Rene, denounced by his mother and absent from his father Antoine escapes the correction program and runs all the way to the ocean – reaching the place he had always wished to find but never been. There on the windswept beach Antoine stops and looks into the camera. Truffaut’s iconic finale to the film is a visual metaphor to the individual at the end of the line. The beach is the end of the world with a wall of water. Receding into nothingness Antoine an adolescent antihero, ostracized by the social system around him has no where else to turn but to the spectator breaking the fourth wall and closing the film in one of the stylistic emblems of the new wave movement.