The French New Wave will be incomplete without the redoubtable Agnès Varda - in fact, critics even credit her earlier works as the forerunner of the Nouvelle Vague. Whatever the case, Varda's magnificent 1962 masterpiece "Cléo de 5 à 7" [Eng. Title: Cleo from 5 to 7] is certainly one of the highlights of the venerable film movement.
Agnès Varda, in brief:
A photojournalist-turned-film maker, young Agnés Varda progressed into cinema while helping out a friend. Having watched fewer films than her contemporaries, she started making films in her own natural way without the influence of past masters, and her refreshing approach won instant admirers. Despite the fact that her début feature, "La Pointe-Courte" is widely regarded as the first 'proper' French New Wave film, her filmography has curiously been the most overlooked among her peers (one that the future will hopefully remedy). Her films have also not been widely released on DVD.
Varda's journalistic eye is amply evident in all her film compositions - it is as if her camera probes for that extra bit of information not visible to the naked eye. She is someone who won't be in any hurry to stop the camera rolling during a shoot - distinctly aware of the fact that some moments are simply magical, and can never be recalled even by the most seasoned of actors. It is this extra dimension of observation, whilst retaining a playful fascination with her subject, that separates her from her contemporaries, and combined with the manner in which she de-constructs these images for use, she succeeds in keeping her films simple, and yet, thought provoking.
I haven't been able to find that much reading material in the net on Varda at the time of posting, but recommend this book for those interested in further reading.
[Amazon Book Link] - Agnes Varda, by Alison Smith
Cléo de 5 à 7:
The film follows two hours in the life of Florence aka Cléo (Corrine Marchand) - an up and coming pop singer, walking through the streets of Paris whilst awaiting results for a medical test that might reveal a potentially life-threatening illness. The tarot cards drawn at the beginning of the film will act as the storyboard for events that'll follow. Cléo is young, pretty, and thanks to her privileged upbringing - belongs to that exclusive club in society where even the traffic will slow down to enable her cross the road.
For the best part of the film, we observe Cléo through reflections - from mirrors, and people's reactions on seeing her. The image we register is that of a typically self-centred diva who has an all-encompassing need to look her part. "Wait pretty butterfly, ugliness is a kind of death", she'll tells herself, while pausing to look at the mirror before stepping back into the street. She remains a diva until she starts shedding her layers of carefully constructed veneer during the later part of the film - out will come her wig, her sunglasses, and her hat, as if stripping herself back to her 'natural' form.
She's still just as beautiful as before, like her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) - posing in the nude for a sculpture class, but now the beauty is accompanied by a poise not seen earlier. The final transformation takes place when Cléo meets an engaging stranger in the park (Antoine Bourseiller) - a soldier who will be leaving to Algeria the following day...
This existential journey by Cléo in the two hours (actually one and a half - the length of the film) of a summer afternoon marks a high-point in the Nouvelle Vague, and will often be referenced as a feminist statement (even if I fail to see the connection). But I find it insightful nevertheless, and more importantly, utterly charming (notwithstanding Cléo's genuine anguish viz. her well-being) in the manner in which Varda whimsically deals with a serious subject. It is a film classic whichever way you look at it, and therefore, Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon 4-DVD Criterion Collection [NTSC]
This is definitely my recommended box-set. The Criterion DVD for Cleo from 5 to 7 alone features 2 shorts - Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald featuring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, and L'opéra-mouffe, and a candid interview with Agnés Varda along with the main cast (shot in 2005).
L'opéra-mouffe [Diary of a Pregnant Woman, 1958]
The beautiful short film featuring a young Dorothée Blanck was made when Ms. Varda was pregnant. It's a surrealistic montage created with documentary footage and sketches relating to the circle of love, pregnancy, children growing up, and old age. Ms. Varda mentions that the film was borne out of her concern for the homeless people living in that quarter of Paris. Bold for its day, it is also a memorable time capsule of late 50's Paris.
The Nudity: Dorothée Blanck
Credited as Dorothée Blank, the beautiful actress appears nude as Cléo's friend Dorothée during a modelling session in "Cléo de 5 à 7", and also in the short film "L'opéra-mouffe" made earlier in 1958.