As an urban geographer my research and teaching is oriented around relationships between gender, sexualities and cities. My research doesn’t tend to focus upon film, and I would not profess to be an expert on the Agnés Varda or New Wave cinema but it’s been a pleasure to engage with Cleo from 5 to 7; a film that resonates so closely with my interest in how gendered identities and ideals are mediated through social interactions and the textures of everyday life in cities.
Centring women in narrative and documentary films is a common thread in Varda work. This was a radical and political move during the 1950s, 1960 and 1970s, in which male protagonists and underlying patriarchal ideals dominated films and film-making. And of course, the legacies of this profoundly endure and are re-produced. In Cléo from 5 to 7 we see Varda navigated her feminist politics, in light of the social context in which her work was produced. Varda is less interested in viewers identifying with or sympathising with her protagonist, than engaging with the contradictions Cléo encounters through the social, spatial and political context in which she lives her life. Female characters in the film embody different possibilities for womanhood, but Cléo, our protagonist and guide through Paris, is no feminist heroine. Rather, the film, written and directed by Varda, shows Cléo negotiating the conflicts and ambiguities that women encounter within a patriarchal society. Commenting in this approach, the feminist film theorist Hilary Neroni (2016: 99) contends that Varda ‘creates one of the greatest feminist masterpieces in the history of cinema by enacting the contradictions of femininity and forcing the view to experiences these contradictions without any means of escape… Cleo from 5 to 7 enables us to see that feminism is not just a project of female emancipation but an emancipatory project for all of society.’
This approach permeates the themes upon which the film is hinged. Viewers follow the self-absorbed and pampered Cléo, a well-known singer, as she moves through Paris. The events and rhythms of everyday life take on new significance as she awaits the result of a biopsy, contemplating her fate, identity and place in the world.
5 to 7 refers to the hours over which we accompany Cleo, but also the French slang, referring the time that sexual affairs usually take place. As Neroni (2016: 100) suggests, the film is not about Cléo sexual affairs, but a ‘brief but intense affair with the possibility of death.’ Indeed, we meet Cléo during an ominous tarot card reading and accompany her in real time as her existential crisis unfolds, a process in which the social and urban fabric of 1960s Paris assumes not simply an incidental backdrop, but a supporting role.
In this way, Varda invokes the figure of the flâneuse, a feminine counterpart to the flâneur, a key figure in 19th century French literature, Balzac and Baudelaire, as well as academic writing, from Walter Benjamin, to more recent feminist critiques by Elizabeth Wilson and Lauren Elkin. The flâneur is a connoisseur of the city, specifically Paris. He is a man about town, who possesses sufficient wealth to and time to aimlessly wander the city streets, loiter, sit in cafes and consume the sceptical of urban modernity and Parisian public life.
Of course, in 19th century Paris, women’s access to public space, therefore their participate in public life was severely limited for most. Yet, we might view Cléo, as and flâneuse for 1960s Paris and as viewers we vicariously travel through the fine-grain and multi-sensory textures of Parisian life. Like the flâneur, Cleo’s flânuese is socially privileged and spatially mobile; she is a wealthy, white, non-disabled, heterosexual and cisgender women. Yet, Cléo’s life and identity is entangled within patriarchal social relation and values, including those that she herself is deeply invested in.
Whilst viewing Paris through Cléo’s female gaze, a patriarchal male gaze is ever present, with beauty, looking, being looked at, and women’s place in society operating core themes around which the film pivots. Cléo, as flâneuse, consumes the spectacle of late capitalist modernity as manifest within the social and material fibre of 1960s Paris. Yet, Cléo is simultaneously consumed by her fellow Parisians as object and commodity. We see this through Cleo’s interactions; particularly with men, but also through Varda’s use of mirrors as a device that signifies Cléo’s relationship to beauty and process of self reflection. Beauty is fundamental to Cleo’s sense of self, she enjoys and finds validation in embodying femininity as an object, enacting practices and consuming products that signify femininity. With a few exceptions, Cléo and those around her benefit, or are somehow invested in her beauty. Neroni observes that Cléo’s beauty simultaneously defines and obliterates her, erasing her subjectivity through objectification. Through the film we see Cléo grappling with the implications of seeing herself, and being seen by others through a lens of feminine beauty, which situates her as frivolous, passive and vulnerable. For Cleo, her beauty is vitalising, her life as it is, and indeed her sense of superiority, depends up on it, but way does this mean in the face of possible death?
Temporality is integral to the film in a number of ways. Fate and luck are themes that we observe Cléo contending with at a tempo, which in the wider context of the film immerses viewers in the visual and sonic textures of Parisian street life. Though Cléo does little time checking herself, the film is structured through chapters that locate her in time, between 5 and 7. We also see reference to time the background of shots, from the streets to her apartment.
Varda locates Cléo and Paris with a wider national and international website of relations and context, including through references to the Algerian War of Independence. Along with her New Wave contemporaries, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, as well as intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, Guy Debord, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Varda was publicity opposed to French military actions in Algeria. Rather than taking an explicitly political stance, she makes the Algerian War visible by lacing it through films narrative. In doing so, the brutality of France militaristic imperialism is not simply suspended at a distance; it is located in Paris, the heart of France’s collapsing empire. This echoes Varda’s approach to implicating patriarchal social relations within her films, using narrative to make political issues visible, and encouraging engaged viewing, without alienating an audience, which she felt was counter-productive to communicating her message (Neroni 2016).
Neroni, Hilary (2016) Feminism and Cléo from 5 to 7. Feminist Film Theory and Film Theory in Practice. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 85–150.
Wilson, Elizabeth (1992) The Invisible Fláneur, New Left Review, Jan/Feb 1992: https://newleftreview.org/issues/I191/articles/elizabeth-wilson-the-invisible-flaneur
Elkin, Lauren (2016) Radical Flâneuserie, the Paris Review, 25 August 2016: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/08/25/radical-flaneuserie/
This introduction to Cléo From 5 to 7 was given by Lo at our screening of the film on 12th May 2019 in Dalston's Rio Cinema.
Lo Marshall researches urban geographies of gender and sexuality as a research assistant at the UCL Urban Laboratory and doctoral candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Department of Geography, UCL. As part of an on-going collaboration researching LGBTQ+ Nightlife in London writh Prof Ben Campkin, Lo recently co-authored an article published in Sounding Journal, guest edited Urban Pamphleteer #7, LGBTQ Night-Time Spaces: Past, Present and Future, co-curated a ‘Queer Salon’ at the Museum of London, and contributed to the exhibition ‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s – Today’, currently showing at The Whitechapel Gallery.