Cléo from 5 to 7

Cléo from 5 to 7 ★★★★

"Everyone spoils me. No one loves me." ~ Cleo

When I read the premise for this film by writer-director Agnès Varda, I was intrigued. It provides a minute-by-minute account of a woman's life in Paris between 5pm and 6:30pm on a Tuesday, the first day of summer in 1961. What makes the time period special is that she is waiting for test results from her doctor, who suspects she may have stomach cancer.

The woman is a pop singer named Florence "Cleopatra" Victoire (Corinne Marchand) aka Cléo. The film begins with her visit to a fortuneteller who sees illness and death in the Tarot cards she draws. Meeting in a café with her superstitious assistant Angèle offers Cléo no solace. Back home in her loft apartment, Cléo's lover José (José Luis de Vilallonga) pays a brief visit but seems little concerned, nor do her songwriters, Bob and Plumitif (Michel Legrand and Serge Korber), who come by to rehearse.

Cléo tries to convince herself that as long as she is beautiful, she is more alive than those who are not facing a potential cancer diagnosis. But clearly she is scared, feeling very alone and unable to confide in those around her, so she goes out for a walk to air her thoughts and give her emotions a chance to breathe.

In the course of Cléo's movements, divided into 13 clearly labeled chapters, Varda gives us a street level tour of Paris by taxi, bus, roadster and on foot, with snippets of unconnected conversations, radio news, juke box music and even a busker who swallows live frogs. Cléo's friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), a dancer turned model, lends a sympathetic ear and distracts her with a visit to her projectionist boyfriend Raoul (Raymond Cauchetier).

Finally, Cléo finds herself alone in Montsouris Park, where she meets a soldier named Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), who is about to ship out to the conflict in Algeria. Maybe it's his nonstop banter, his impish good looks, or the fact that he's also facing potential death, but Cléo takes an interest him and there seems to be some chemistry. He agrees to accompany her to see the doctor if she'll come to the train station and see him off.

This is no traditional narrative, of course. It's more like hitchhiking, catching rides with Cléo's ever-shifting feelings, experiencing her frustration, fear, anxiety, confusion, amusement, despair, longing, helplessness, isolation, resistance and reluctance en route to an odd form of relief. If you enjoy experimental films, this is must-see cinema, which earned Varda a Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes, while winning the Critics Award for Best Film from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics.

Part of my French Nouvelle Vague challenge.

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