Cleo from 5 to 7 is a portrait. When I first started the movie, I was sure it was going to be a character study of a spoiled, vain, and empty songstress. However, as I watched Cleo, a singer faced with a deathly illness, roam the streets of Paris looking into the faces of friends and strangers for meaning I came to realize that director Agnes Varda carefully selected a very specific moment in this woman’s life to show the viewer. Varda gave us the hours 5 to 7 and like any good portrait that moment is both simple and complex, limited and vast.
The film follows Cleo as she copes with the possibility that she will die from cancer. Cleo begins the movie as a somewhat shallow and spoiled singer who is happy that she at least still has her looks and is happy that the cancer is in her stomach because no one will see it. Varda slowly shows us that Cleo’s looks are her mask and that she does not seem to have any really meaningful relationships. Maybe 30mins of the movie is committed to her discomfort as she realizes that the people around her don’t really love her or know her. She says that she’s worried that everyone is looking at her, but really only she looks at herself, that no one sees her. The threat of cancer essentially brings to surface a truth: she has not lived a life she is satisfied with and partly because she is unwilling to sink into her depths.
Like anyone who feels sorry for herself, Cleo decides to wander the city moping about her shortcomings and her approaching doom. At this precise moment she bumps into Antoine, a soldier who is about to ship out at 7. He sees her. He tells here she looks like someone who is waiting for something and not someone. In just moments Cleo delves into what appears to be the most sincere relationship of the film. She tell him that she is scared of everything and that she hates nakedness. He tells her “Nakedness is simplicity itself, like the sun, the water…”.
The movie is a portrait of her quest towards nakedness, to be seen, to face her illness, to face truth and when she find it with this passing soldier she admits that she feels happy and the movie ends.
The strength of this movie comes in how cleverly Varda tells the story. The form of the film matches the meaning. The cinematography is simple black and white footage. It isn’t a flashy film nor is it fast and funny. It is simple but full of truth. The style is essentially striped down and naked. It’s full of cleverly placed metaphor that much of modern cinema lacks. Varda shows you a great search almost without showing you.