The experience of death anxiety in art is usually explored through deep philosophical pondering, a bleak atmosphere, and at times even religious or atheistic themes. They move through the character’s mind, giving the audience a sense of despair and hopelessness, forcing us to cope with our own mortality. But in Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, she takes a different approach to explore this idea. Varda instead shows us Cleo’s meanderings around the city as she switches between moments of giddiness to those of fear, and rarely allowing us inside her mind. This Cleo from 5 to 7 analysis will contain SPOILERS until the conclusion.
Cleo, a French pop singer in the 60s, has recently had a medical test to determine whether she has cancer. The film follows her through the two hours of her life before she receives these results. It begins with her tarot card reading, a portent of her coming results. She then proceeds through the day, having lunch, rehearsing music, meeting friends and lovers, and, in the end, she begins speaking with an Algerian soldier who accompanies her to the hospital to get her results as they quietly and happily talk about life. It all leads up to the inevitable results, foreshadowed by her initial tarot reading: the cancer is real. But now the dread is seemingly gone from her, and why?
As I said, Cleo from 5 to 7 is an exploration of death anxiety unlike most that came before it. It is more concerned with the challenge of living with this fear day to day, rather than the usual descent into madness we see that so often comes with it. The general events of Cleo’s day probably don’t stray all too far from what she would normally do. But it’s here that we see how devastating this fear is to her. When she sings, it brings her initial expression of glee to one of terror and sadness, and the background reflects her state of mind. It’s a background that is perfectly captured so she is framed in black, but when the camera finally zooms out we realize it is just a part of the room, a part of the usual every day. There are moments like these, including the scenes in the diners and the first taxi ride, where Cleo’s actress, Corinne Marchand, is able to so expertly display the sudden change from thoughts of life to those of death, and back again – just like the switch from the black background to that of her room.
Varda places some unusual things which Cleo sees throughout these hours that affect her view of death. She is deeply disturbed by the grotesque, such as her encounters with street performers seeming to mutilate themselves or perform absurd acts with animals. Then, the idea of sex or a naked body (when she sees her friend posing for the art class) also bring a feeling of discomfort and confusion. It’s these images of the body (performing what she subconsciously views as more animalistic acts, or forcing on her the imperfect muscle and flesh that makes up a person) which tear her from the moment she is living and reminds her of her mortality.
In the end, she finds someone willing to help her cope – a person whom she seems able to feel comfortable sharing her fear with, and who can take these fears seriously rather than either acting similarly worried (like her friend) or passing off her anxiety as ridiculous (as almost everyone else). This act of listening and understanding is one of the few things which suppress her death anxiety for longer than the length of a scene. His character can represent the simple act of understanding or compassion, and his refusal to downplay her anxiety as a trick of the mind is the only true act of empathy we see towards her in the entire film. In the end, when she receives her results, despite the cancer being real, she feels elation, a lightness, and a weight lifted off her shoulders. It was not the cancer she was afraid of, but the unknown, and now she has the hope she can fight it.
Cleo from 5 to 7 is an accurate study on the effect which death anxiety can pose on one’s life. The film is also a wonderful expression of the French New Wave, and evokes a sense of literary modernism, focusing on the existential human condition rather than a plot meant to just entertain. The various viewpoints, from sudden mood changes to thoughts of baser animal acts and even to those of therapy in the form of a friend, show Varda’s expertise in this topic. Whether it comes from their research or simply their personal experience with the fear, Varda’s direction and Marchand’s acting are able to instill what this anxiety may truly feel like. But as I said at the beginning, it’s not a hopeless and bleak look at death – it doesn’t solely focus on despair and loss of hope. Instead, it gives us something to help interpret our own fear or something to let us know how to help a loved one coping with a similar circumstance.
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