The opposite of what’s expected

French New Wave classic is the antithesis of ‘the perfect Hollywood film’

The French New Wave was an undeniably important era in the history of filmmaking. Its influence can still be felt in the works of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or pretty much any other director who’s ever used a jump cut.

Among the great male directors of the New Wave movement—Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard—stands Agnes Varda, whose seminal 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 is playing this week at Cinematheque as a part of their exciting Repertory series.

Cleo is a self-involved pop singer on the rise who has just found out that she may have cancer. She must wait two hours before she can return to the hospital to verify the diagnosis.

Even though the film is only 90 minutes long, the idea is that we are watching two hours of Cleo’s life in real time. This discrepancy is not important. In fact, that sort of pedantic thinking is exactly what the film takes issue with.

Cleo’s life is one full of mirrors, of leering men and intrusive fans. She is constantly playing a role: even her bedroom is more reminiscent of a stage than a living space. She is an existential hero in desperate need of something deeper, something she only finds when she begins to actually see the world around her.

Varda, like her New Wave counterparts, is an expert in what makes the perfect Hollywood film—which is why she is able to so expertly make its antithesis. Everything in Cleo goes in the opposite direction of what is expected: the handsome man is a jerk, while the ugly man is perfect; the music swells just before nothing happens and sentimentality is satirized rather than celebrated. In this way, the film turns what could be a painfully saccharine melodrama into something truly transcendent.

At the time these films were released, there were those in the Paris streets who believed what was happening in these films would change the world; or at the very least transform cinema. Some hoped that films would, like this one, begin to reject the glossy outer veneer of celluloid, choosing instead to examine inner struggle of the soul.

Since many of the current offerings flickering across the screens at your local multiplex prove that this dream is still unrealized, this writer highly recommends that you to take a seat at that downtown oasis of art cinema known as Winnipeg’s Cinematheque and revisit a time when the possibilities of film seemed endless.

Published in Volume 63, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 22, 2009)

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