“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” That quote is usually attributed to Anaïs Nin, who counts among the most famous Parisiennes despite only having spent a relatively short stretch of her life there. Cléo Victoire must also occupy those same ranks, despite being a wholly fictional character. We know her as the protagonist of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, the breakout feature by French New Wave auteur Agnès Varda — another of the great Parisiennes of our time, if one reluctant enough to have arrived for her education at the Sorbonne seeing Paris as a “grey, inhumane, sad city.” Still, as Cléo’s perambulations through and interactions with Paris reveal, Varda certainly knew how to use the place.
As the film plays out in real time, “we follow Cléo through an afternoon as she journeys across real locations in Paris, waiting for her dreaded test results to be ready.” So says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his new video essay “Through Agnes Varda’s Looking Glass.” A promising singer, Cléo has undergone a medical examination to determine whether or not she has cancer, and not until the final scene will she have the answer.
In the meantime, Varda takes the opportunity to “paint a complex picture of a complex woman on a stressful day in her life.” This stress prompts Cléo “to examine and ultimately confront her self-image,” a journey that takes her past, among other things, more than a few mirrors.
Beginning the film as a self-regarding character — in the most literal sense — Cléo never passes up a chance to check her own reflection, and thus confirm her own existence. “If she’s not a beautiful, healthy, up-and-coming singer,” as Puschak articulates the question that descends upon her, “who is she?” Composed only of outside perceptions, Cléo’s center cannot hold; eventually “she discards the identity she’s made for others. She ceases to be an object, looked at even by herself and becomes a subject, the one who looks.” Her crisis forces her to “observe the world as it is, not as a reflection of people’s expectation of her.” Varda’s cinematic vision of her transformation shows what it is to see things not as we are, but as they are.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.