Two by Varda: Cleo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond
     Corinne Marchand and Jose Luis de Villalonga in Cleo From 5 to 7.

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   C R A I G   J.  F I S C H E R

The directors of the French New Wave are obsessed with contradictions and unlikely combinations. Jean-Luc Godard's career charts a trajectory from his "neo-realist musical" Une Femme est une femme (1961) to the conflicts between image and sound that typify his Dziga Vertov period to the promiscuous mix of film and video in projects such as Numéro deux (1975) and the Histoire(s) du cinéma series (1989-98). Much of Alain Resnais' work straddles the distinction between fiction and documentary; Hiroshima mon amour (1959) combines newsreel footage of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing with the fictional romance of two troubled protagonists, while Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980) uses made-up characters and scenarios to illustrate real-life behavioral theories. And Chris Marker fuses ethnography, self-reflexivity, fiction, and autobiography into what Philip Lopate rightly considers remarkably cohesive and erudite "essay films." It became clear to me while watching the new Criterion Collection DVD releases of Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985) that Agnès Varda is another nouvelle vague director interested in exploring the contradictions between fiction and documentary, between spectacle and narration.

Played with grace by Corinne Marchand, the Cléo of Varda's 1962 film is a beautiful but somewhat shallow pop singer nervously waiting for the results of a cancer test. The film covers Cléo's life for two hours, from (predictably) 5 to 7pm, but Varda compresses this time down to 90 minutes. Cléo spends much of these two hours with the important people in her life and career, including her amanuensis Angèle (Dominique Davray), her callow boyfriend José (José Luis de Villalonga) and her old friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blank), but near the end of the film she wanders the streets of Paris alone and is comforted by a kind soldier (Antoine Bourseiller) preparing to return to Algeria.

DVD cover artwork for Cleo From 5 to 7.
[click photo for larger version]

Cléo's story is very simple, but Varda introduces digressions that pull us away from plot structure and into moments of documentary and pure spectacle. Near the beginning of the film, for instance, Cléo and Angèle have a quick drink at a restaurant and shop for a hat. (Cléo From 5 to 7 has been justly praised for its artful framing and camera work, and the scene in the hat store, with its plethora of mirrors and the von Sternbergian mise-en-scene clutter of dozens of hats on display, is the film's stylistic tour-de-force.) After Cléo portentously buys a black hat, she and Angèle take a cab back to Cléo's apartment. In most Hollywood films, this cab ride would be extremely short or cut out of the plot altogether, but Varda's ride lasts for a solid five minutes, creating a "dead spot" in the narrative that nonetheless serves several functions. First, the scene contrasts the tough female taxi driver--who tells a story about a reckless fight she had with youngsters who refused to pay their fare--with Cléo and her cancer fears. Secondly, Varda sneaks in a bit of social / media commentary; as a shampoo ad plays on the taxi radio, Angèle gingerly pats her hair, indicating with this silent gesture both her fundamental insecurity and advertising's exploitation of this insecurity. (The radio also broadcasts a news story about Algeria, foreshadowing the appearance of the soldier at the film's end and, coincidentally, laying out the French-Algerian conflict for contemporary viewers.) Most interestingly, much of the scene is shot through the taxi's windshield, providing--like the location shots in such early nouvelle vague classics as Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Vivre sa vie (1962)--a lovely mini-documentary of 1960s Paris.

Varda's balance of narrative and non-narrative elements is most poignant in a café scene about halfway into the film. After a frustrating rehearsal with two smart-ass pop music composers who treat her like a troublesome child, Cléo storms out of her apartment. Throughout the film, Cléo says that she dreads cancer because she fears the corrosion of her physical beauty, and she improvises a plan to discover how her attractiveness and her fame influence the people around her. She enters a café, programs one of her hit pop tunes on the jukebox, and strolls around the café waiting for someone to recognize her. The patrons continue their conversations, blithely ignoring both her and her song. Cléo's desperate plea for attention shows the lack of authentic relationships in her life (a lack partially filled when she meets the soldier), and Varda emphasizes this lack of connection by juxtaposing glamorous medium shots of Cléo sweeping through the café with documentary-style close-ups of the very ordinary faces of the café customers. Cléo passes through the café, and through much of Cléo From 5 to 7, like a neglected dream, and real life rolls on, indifferent to the confusion of one young woman with cancer.

DVD cover artwork for Vagabond.
[click photo for larger version]

Vagabond's central character is Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young woman who gives up her secretary job to live, as the French title indicates, "without roof or rule." Mona wanders though la France profonde and has many encounters: she co-habitates with a new boyfriend in an abandoned villa, she stays with a young couple who herd sheep (until they justifiably accuse her of being lazy and she leaves), she develops an uneasy friendship with a college professor, she works pruning vineyards with a new Tunisian boyfriend, and finally she falls in with a gang hanging out at a bus terminal, initiating a series of events that lead to her death.

Although Cléo focuses on a celebrity in existential crisis and Vagabond tells the story of the life and death of a homeless "nobody," various concerns and themes unite the two films. Vagabond is punctuated with long, patient shots of Mona trooping across the rural French countryside, shots which, like the scenes through the windshield in Cléo, give us an documentary sense of the protagonist's surroundings. And both films are obsessed with the dynamics of the gaze, male and otherwise. Men constantly look at Cléo, and the café scene makes it clear that she has internalized these gazes and now believes that physical beauty and fame is all she has to offer to the world. One of the earliest shots in Vagabond shows Mona, in a non-invasive long shot, emerging naked from the sea and striding on a beach; in subsequent shots, two young toughs stare at her and talk about how she "wants it," but these guys, perhaps sensing her strength and iconoclasm, are afraid to approach her. Varda builds on Mona's strength throughout the film, characterizing her as both an object of male desire and as a sexual being with desires and attractions that she expresses and initiates. Mona rejects the advances of a horny truck driver ("No rides for free, eh?"), initiates the romance with the Tunisian vine-pruner by holding his hand, and reacts to a picture of a man by saying, "He's cute...I could go for him," even while carrying on a conversation with the man's girlfriend. By dropping out of conventional society, she leaves behind conventional sexual mores as well, challenging male gazes even while she engages in looks and lusts of her own.

Cléo From 5 to 7 makes reference to other films and filmmakers through various instances of clever casting; one of the musicians that drives Cléo out of her apartment is nouvelle vague composer Michel Legrand, and midway through the film Cléo watches a brief film-within-a-film, a parody of a silent comedy, that stars Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, and Eddie Constantine. Vagabond, however, alludes to other movies in different and more profound ways. Vagabond begins with Mona frozen to death in a ditch and is structured as a series of flashback reminiscences offered up by the people that Mona met during the last three months of her life. As Varda acknowledges (and as several critics, most notably Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, have discussed in detail), this structure is cribbed from Citizen Kane, a move that punctures Kane's bourgeois sense of tragedy and self-importance by implicitly suggesting that to die alone, old, rich, and in a comfortable bed is better than to die alone, poor, and young due to starvation and exposure.

Another film Vagabond cites is Godard's classic Weekend (1967). The films share many similarities, including:

  • Somewhat unlikeable protagonists (Mona, Weekend's married couple Roland and Corinne) traveling through a rural France defined by its sexual predation (particularly in and around cars and trucks) and grueling labor;
  • "Philosophical" characters (Vagabond's philosophy scholar turned goat farmer, Tom Thumb and Emily Brönte in Weekend) who condemn the behavior of the central protagonists;
  • Representatives workers from the "Third World" (Mona's Tunisian boyfriend, the Arab and African garbagemen) that allow both auteurs to comment on imperialism; and
  • A scene in each film where a woman (Mona, Corinne) is assaulted in the woods, and the camera tracks past the human figures, denying the audience a view of the rape as it occurs.

So why does Varda make these connections? One significant difference is that Weekend is outrageously satiric; Godard presents the film's cannibalism, auto-violence, and sexual politics in exaggerated, surreal, hysterical, Buñuelian ways, but Vagabond is a scrupulously realistic film. Mona lives in a world where there are no free rides: everyone exploits everyone else, and that's just the way things are. And Vagabond's casual portrayal of these brute facts makes the film, for me, much sadder than either Weekend or Citizen Kane.

Cléo and Vagabond are quintessential examples of the art film, a mode of narration which, according to David Bordwell, includes ambiguous characters, meandering, episodic plots, serious themes, and non-narrative flourishes of style. I adore foreign art films, and I love all of Varda's work that I've seen, but I also realize that the art film is a relic of the past and that most contemporary spectators consider movies such as Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Dogma (1999) ambiguous and "arty" enough for their tastes. Folks like this should stay a hundred miles away from Vagabond. But if you value the work of such great foreign auteurs as Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, and Abbas (Taste of Cherry) Kiarostami (and I'd certainly include Varda on this list), or if you love the films of the French New Wave, you'll find these DVDs indispensable.

Cléo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. The digital transfers for both movies were supervised and approved by director Agnès Varda. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out the The Criterion Collection Web site.