Often when people ask me for my favourite film, my mind instantly becomes one of the blankest blank slates ever. Do you go for a big hit blockbuster that your parents have shoved down your throat all these years or a nice avant-garde piece?
For me it’s the former. A nice bit of arty farty, existential viewing. Agnes Varda’s quintessential New Wave classic: Cléo from 5 to 7.
One of the reasons why I love this film so much is Varda’s mastery as a director. Her ability to tap into everyday existential dread is what’s so intriguing about this masterpiece. Our protagonist Cléo (Corinne Marchand) acts as a superstitious sort throughout this realist ramble around Paris. Primarily a famed singer, Cléo both fears and anticipates the reveal of a possible cancer from her medical exam (after a slightly creepy fortune teller warns her of this during the film’s opening scene) as she wanders the streets of Paris, unsure of how to act with this new information. After weaving through the many urbanites along the Rue de Rivoli to settle in the harmonious gardens of Montsouris Park, Cléo stumbles along a military soldier Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) who awakens her to the secret of living a happy life.
This is a film that has all the ingredients: a pinch of the philosophical and life’s reflections, a splash of ‘Frenchness’ as Varda’s handheld camera mingles with the exquisite boutiques and streets of Paris, and most importantly of all, CATS! (I honestly don’t know why Varda obsesses over cats so much but what the heck, they’re cute). It was in fact my brother who told me about Varda’s feline-fantasies, when he first introduced me to this film a few years ago. This immediately set me down a path of crazily seeking out her other films and then diving into the French New Wave as a whole. But Cléo was the first domino, and my new passion toppled on from there. There’s something about Varda’s filming of the urban landscape as we wander with Cléo that gives the film a real tangibility and true sensory experience: when we’re in the park we catch whiffs of tree pollen or if we’re in central Paris, the petrol fumes of cars and bikes that whizz past. We can’t actually smell these things when watching the film but Varda truly does transport us into a feast-your-eyes era of Frenchness, full of: musical wonders from the likes of Édith Piaf, fashion and lots and lots of hats, and the slightly murkier side of the Algerian war.
Credit: Sam Taunton
Over the summer I was lucky enough to take a brief trip to Paris, brief being a positive here as I may have started melting after a week or two. During my time there I popped along to Montsouris Park. One particular scene shot in real time there sees the protagonist undergoing her rebirth, steadily becoming infatuated with the natural beauty around her. A single long take captures her picture-perfect movement as she waltzes down a set of ornate wooden stairs to the park. I always find myself completely absorbed by the beauty of this scene, and the fact that I can now say I’ve visited the actual location, sums up the truly special impact that cinema can have in our lives. Varda’s idea of cinema is one that in my eyes, is bang on the money, spot-on, faultless. What makes for the extra cherry on top is that Varda proves that you don’t have to be a white dude to make a truly remarkable film that can appeal to all. Give it a go if you haven’t already, you won’t be disappointed!
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor