“There’s always something wrong with you” says Cleo’s lover. “It’s your imagination. People’s minds are crammed full of cancer and heart trouble. My disease is phone calls and appointments.”
Agnès Varda’s “Cléo from 5 to 7” (1961) is a film that ought to be discovered by you. Haven’t you felt electrified and alive the past few months evaluating the things that you’re no longer available to do and you took for granted? Or started noticing things you never had before? Lately I wake up early in the morning, grateful to be alive and find myself admiring the sun as it rises – noticing the shy rays of light and smelling the crispness of the moisture on the ground. Varda’s 90-minute masterpiece captures that exhilaration of a character’s understanding that she may not be alive for too long. Her reawakening – propelled by fears and hope – heightens everything around her – the fact that she’s walking through the streets of the left bank of Paris make her journey that more appealing, charming and spirited to us the audience.
There’s also the fact that she’s allowed negative thoughts to rule her life and her priorities. Everything is a sign. Superstition and pessimism have clogged her life. “You seem to be waiting for something rather than someone,” she’s told.
When discussing the French New Wave – most people first think of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer or Jacques Demy – which have become household names. The only woman in the group – Agnes Varda – deserves bigger acclaim and recognition. You can chalk it up to her sex and also because her style wasn’t “Hey, look at me!” like the others. Nevertheless, her first film “La Pointe Courte” (1955), is alluded to by many film theorists as the pioneer of the movement with her experimental approach, mixing in a documentary feel and existential themes. Hers was a truly distinct ouvre that preceded “Breathless” (1960) and the movies that followed.
I can’t express accurately the rush for me of watching her film. It feels like seeing something completely fresh and modern. It’s like listening to a great jazz recording for the first time. It feels kinetic and exuberantly pulsating with life. For a film that is ultimately an observation on a young woman’s grappling with her mortality, it’s so sensual and glorious.
The title refers to the hours of 5 to 7 which is the time in France that lovers rendezvous with each other. Cléo is getting results from her biopsy at 7pm – so the film covers that time period – when she feels already doomed. It all starts with a breathtaking opening sequence in which the credits roll. In rich color and in a bird’s eye angle, we watch a tarot card reading. “Choose nine cards,” she’s asked. “Three for the past, three for the present and three for the future.” During this transaction, we’re given all we need to know about Cléo. “You have a close friend who’s a widow, and she’s a questionable influence. You’re in music. I see evil forces.” She pulls the death card. “This card is not necessarily death. It means a complete transformation of your whole being.” At that moment we see her and the film boldly turns to black and white – and the narrative begins. Wow!
For the next hour and a half, you will see her trying to entertain herself to distract from the bleak thoughts circling in her mind. You will see her go into a hat show. There’s a jaw-dropping sequence in which she will try on different hats – surrounded by mirrors – and you will see her reflection. “Trying things on intoxicates me!” A shot sees her through the window and there’s a reflection of the city life going by. There are horses trotting on the streets. Students are protesting the Algerian war. The mirrors will play a significant role in the film. This is a journey of identity and perception. How she’s objectified. How she perceives herself – and how she will come into her own.
You will also get an insatiable tour of Paris life, its cafes and parks where she will observe the hurlyburly and excitement of public life. “Open your eyes – see for yourself,” a street performer beckons. A friend will take her to a movie theatre to see a short – a showstopper silent film within a film – that becomes a metaphor for her life – starring Jean Luc Goddard himself. “My glasss made everything look black,” he says. Michel Legrand (composer of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) will stop by with songs he wants her to sing.
She’ll fatefully meet a young soldier who’s heading to the Algerian War. He will talk about the way she’s perceived and the way she really is. It is all quite stimulating.
Cléo: “We have so little time. We have plenty of time.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy
Written and Directed by Agnès Varda
Starring Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blanc and Michel Legrand
About Writer and Director Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda was born in Brussels, Belgium and was raised in France. She attended the École du Louvre, studying art history and gained a strong interest in experimental and radical photography. Following her education, Varda was hired as a photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris, taking pictures of theater performances, giving her a first taste of performing arts. With no training in film and proclaiming to only have “seen five movies” by the age of 25, Varda embarked on an ambitious and life changing project. While in the small French fishing town of La Pointe Courte to take photographs for a terminally ill friend who had grown up there, Varda decided she wanted more than just pictures. She explains, “I thought that photography was not enough…My idea was if you add words and music and editing and something, that becomes cinema.” Shot in 1954, “La Pointe Courte” features many stylistic elements that predated the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 60s. As the New Wave became established by such directors as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Varda’s work was more in line with the Rive Gauche or Left Bank cinema movement that drew heavily from the nouveau roman literary movement and strong Left politics.
Following her first film, Varda embarked on a long career creating experimental forms of cinema that at times mashed scripted feature films with the realness of documentaries. Some of her best known works include “Cléo from 5 to 7” (1962), the story of a pop singer awaiting biopsy results that may confirm a cancer diagnosis; “Vagabond” (1984), the non-linear story of the death of a drifter named Mona; and “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991), which follows the life and death of her husband, French film director Jacques Demy. Among her other films are “Le Bonheur” (1965), “Les Créatures” (1966), “Loin du Vietnam” (1967), “Lions Love” (1969), “Daguerréotypes” (1975), “Mur murs” (1981), “Le Petit amour” (1987), “Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans” (1993), “Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse” (2000), “Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse… deux ans après” (2002), and the autobiographical “The Beaches of Agnès” (2008)…For her directorial achievements Varda was nominated for the DGA’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Award for “The Beaches of Agnès” in 2010. Varda’s films have also won considerable recognition at film festivals around the globe, as well as three César Awards, the French equivalent of the Academy Awards. Varda passed away in March 2019. (dga.org)
About Co-Cinematographer Paul Bonis
Born in 1940 to a father who operated in the French Resistance from its beginnings and who died fighting the Nazis in 1944, Paul Bonis discovered the cinema in the 1950s at the movie club of a small seminary where he was sent. He was later trained at the Ecole Louis-Lumière – which, at the time, was located in the rue Vaugirard (Paris), and from where he graduated in 1960, – he became a member of the camera crew on Agnes Varda’s film “Cléo from 5 to 7” in 1961, where he first met cinematographer Jean Rabier. His career truly took off in 1965, when he was the camera assistant on Agnes Varda’s “Le Bonheur,” and Claude Chabrol’s “Marie Chantal vs. Doctor Kha,” an experience that deeply affected him. He assisted Jean Rabier, and also Ghislain Cloquet, until 1971, and during the same period he worked with Claude Zidi on a number of films. Claude Zidi gave Paul Bonis the opportunity to film his first feature-length movie as a cinematographer on “Les Bidasses en folie.” Six comedies with Claude Zidi would follow, but it was on a short film, “La Cage de Pierre” (1968), that he met Pierre Zucca, via whom he began work on films of a very different tone. The films that they made together range from “Vincent mit l’âne dans un pré” (1975), to “Alouette, je te plumerai” (1988), and “Rouge-gorge” (1985), amongst others. Beginning in 1991, he began to film movies for television, directed by the likes of Jean-Louis Bertuccelli and Michel Sibra, and in 2003, he filmed Claude Grinberg’s fiction “La Maîtresse du corroyeur,” which was his last project as a cinematographer. In 2006, he, along with other film buffs, created the movie club entitled La Luciole, in the town of Bono, which screens forgotten movies. (afcinema.com)
About Composer Michel Legrand
Born in 1932, Michel Legrand came from a family with a musical tradition represented by his father, Raymond Legrand and his uncle Jacques Hélian. When he was ten, he entered the Paris Conservatory, which proved to be an unexpected revelation. “Until then, my childhood had been flat and unhappy,“ he relates. “ My life revolved around an old piano and I was very bored. I was very lonely. Suddenly, when I joined Lucette Descaves’ music theory class, I discovered a world that belonged to me, people who spoke my language. From then on, I felt that life had something exciting and motivating to offer” After studying under the iron rule of Nadia Boulanger, Henri Challan and Noël Gallon for several years, Legrand left the Conservatory with top honors in harmony, piano, fugue and counterpoint. He immediately gravitated to the world of song, working as an accompanist musical director to Maurice Chevalier. He traveled with the famous French singer on his international tours. This gave him the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time. His instrumental LP, “I Love Paris,” did extremely well in that country, topping the US album charts in 1954. His first hit record also had great symbolic significance, revealing his international potential: the talented 22 year old did not look back and continued to go from strength to strength in France and abroad. In the 1950s, Michel Legrand also started composing for some of the artists he was accompanying. His first great song “La Valse des Lilas,” displayed an individual style of melodic writing which soon became his hallmark…In 1955, Michel Legrand turned his hand to another mode of expression when he wrote the film score “Les Amants du Tage” by Henri Verneuil. Four years later, with the advent of the French New Wave, he became one of the architects of the revival of French cinema. He began collaborating with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, François Reichenbach and, of course, Jacques Demy, his creative alter ego, with whom he invented a new genre of film musical.
As well as being awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival and the Prix Louis Delluc, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” achieved massive world-wide success – despite the pessimistic predictions of many industry professionals…The parting lovers’ theme song, “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi,” initially covered by Nana Mouskouri, became a popular standard, largely owing to the English adaptation by Norman Gimbel (“I Will Wait for You”) as well as versions by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong and Liza Minelli. Legrand continued to set Jacques Demy’s imaginative lyrics to music (“Les Demoiselles de Rochefort,” “Peau d’âne,” “Trois places pour le 26”), although he moved to Los Angeles in 1968 for what he called “a change of scene”.After the success of the “Thomas Crown Affair” and his song “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Legrand decided to divide his time between Paris and Hollywood, working on anything that appealed to him: “Un été 42,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Jamais plus Jamais, Yentl,” “Prêt-à-porter.” Regarding film music as another form of dialogue, Michel Legrand is the only European composer with a filmography that includes names like Orson Welles, Marcel Carné, Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, Richard Lester, Claude Lelouch, to name just a few. Nonetheless, his prestigious awards in the field of screen music (three Oscars) have had no impact on his creativity…In 1964, Michel Legrand decided to perform his songs himself, adding yet another string to his bow. His voice became an additional instrument that he could put to unaccustomed use…Michel Legrand worked on his voice and focused in particular on building up a repertoire with two writers of his choice: Eddy Marnay (“Les Moulins de mon coeur,” “Quand on s’aime,” “Les enfants qui pleurent”) and Jean Dréjac (“Comme elle est longue à mourir majeunesse,” “Oum le Dauphin,” “L’été ’42”). He subsequently had the chance to put music to lyrics by Jean-Loup Dubadie, Boris Bergman, Françoise Sagan and Jean Guidoni and, in 1981, he himself wrote the words for his album “Attendre”… which he also performed and composed. In America, Michel Legrand’s loyalty to Alan and Marilyn Bergman has given rise to scores of great numbers, usually theme songs (“The Summer Knows,” “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel”).
2014 saw Michel Legrand still performing 60 concerts across the globe. His new ballet, choreographed by John Neumeier from the Hamburg Ballet opened to phenomenal success in Costa Mesa, California, as a prelude to a US tour. Michel’s new concerto for harp was premiered in Philadelphia in February 2014 and his new opera, ‘Dreyfus’, opened at Opéra de Nice in May 2014. To coincide with the 50th Anniversary of ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, Michel Legrand conducted the oratorio version of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’ at Théâtre Châtelet…The CD “Natalie Dessay Sings Michel Legrand” which was released in October 2013 has been certified gold, with sales of 50,000 in France and was followed by a spectacular world tour for three years. Shortly after this international tour, the Hamburg Ballet Liliom by John Neumeier commissioned Michel Legrand to write a ballet based on the beautiful story of Liliom. The ballet was choreographed by John Neumeier and was performed for the first time in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, USA. In March 2014, Michel Legrand wrote a beautiful score for the new Xavier Beauvois movie ‘Love Is A Perfect Crime’. The movie was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014 and was nomination at two other film festivals. Throughout 2014 he performed concerts in France, Ireland, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, USA, Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium for more than 50 concerts!…The performance had seen such a huge success that more dates were added for 2015; An already busy year with concerts all around the world including a tour in South America with Soprano Natalie Dessay and the recording of new album ‘Michel and friends’ which came out in November later that year. In January 2016, Michel Legrand gave a stunning performance with a Big Band and friends tenor Vincent Niclo, Soprano Natalie Dessay, and Maurane at Le Palais des Congrès, Paris during the concert ‘Michel Legrand invite Vincent Niclo’. Later in May 2016 Michel Legrand was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to receive an honorary Doctorate from Western Michigan University as part of his first visit to the Irving S.Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. While in Kalamazoo, Mr. Legrand performed a commissioned World Premiere, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Summer 2016 has been filled with Festivals in Argentina, and France and the year will continue to be extremely busy with concerts around Europe. ‘Michel Legrand invite Vincent Niclo’ has been touring until October 2016. The year of 2017 was rich with Michel Legrand’s 85th Birthday tour around the world and two precious album releases. (michellegrandofficial.com)