Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: PFA Screens a New Wave Classic

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday November 17, 2006

The films of Agnes Varda and her husband Jacques Demy could not be more different.  

Demy, best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, was both part of and apart from the French New Wave. Enamored with Hollywood’s golden age musicals, he is sometimes referred to as France’s answer to Busby Berkeley: sweet but trite stories, artfully decorated but too slight for the tastes of his contemporaries. 

Varda, on the other hand, is New Wave through and through. There are no gunfights, no car crashes, no dramatic chages of heart. Varda made small, insightful films about complex young characters. She represents the feminine side of the New Wave, a movement largely dominated by male directors. And while the male directors for the most part did a fair job of portraying women, Varda’s female characters have a depth and profundity unmatched in the work of her male counterparts. 

Cleo From 5 to 7 details essentially two hours in the life of its heroine in real time, though the timing is not exact and may not be quite realistic; it’s an action-packed two hours of supposedly everyday life. In that short span, the young pop singer protagonist manages a shopping trip, a rehearsal, a visit with a friend and an encounter with a stranger, not to mention bus and taxi trips all over Paris.  

But this is hardly the point. What we’re watching is the psychological processes Cleo undergoes as she awaits the results of a medical test that will tell her just how serious her condition is. She has cancer; we don’t know what kind, we don’t know how serious. We only know that this beautiful, spoiled princess of a woman is suddenly dealing with something she is not accustomed to: hardship and pain.  

How she deals with it tells us almost as much about her as the trappings of her privileged life—her furs, her hats, the adulation of her acquaintances. She approaches her illness with as much self-absorbed intensity as she presumably approached her pre-illness life; she draws people to her, collects them as small testaments to her beauty. But this is not portrayed with condescension; we do not feel contempt for her. Rather we are witnessing the sudden, painful expansion of a young woman’s consciousness as she learns that she is not the center of the world, a notion beautifully expressed in a scene where she plays her latest hit on a cafe jukebox and realizes that no one is paying attention. And, in an encounter with a young soldier about to return to battle in Algeria, she finally gives something of herself to another, offering companionship and conversation to a kindred spirit who also carries a burden. 

The conclusion is typical of the New Wave; there is no big Hollywood–style conclusion, no tearful dramatic close or trite, happy finale, but rather just a small revelation, the flicker of heightened consciousness across Cleo’s face. It is not a big change, not a life-altering change, and in fact the change may prove to be fleeting. But the drama in Cleo From 5 to 7 is not in the action, it is in the mind of its heroine. Such drama is difficult to express as an actor and difficult to photograph for a director, but Varde and her star make it as evident as any Hollywood car crash. 

The film is showing at Pacific Film Archive as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of Janus Films and is available on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection’s 50 Years of Essential Arthouse box set. 




(France, 1961) 

Directed by Agnes Varda. Starring Corinne Marchand and featuring the music of Michel Legrand. 3 p.m. Sunday at Pacific Film Archive. 2575 Bancroft Way. 642-0808.