How Agnès Varda Explores Beauty in Cléo from 5 to 7: a Video Essay

“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 7the 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

How Michel Legrand (RIP) Gave the French New Wave a Sound: Revis­it the Influ­en­tial Music He Com­posed for Jean-Luc Godard & Jacques Demy’s Films

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less: How World War II Changed Cin­e­ma & Helped Cre­ate the French New Wave

How David Lynch Manip­u­lates You: A Close Read­ing of Mul­hol­land Dri­ve

What Andrei Tarkovsky’s Most Noto­ri­ous Scene Tells Us About Time Dur­ing the Pan­dem­ic: A Video Essay

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.

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