Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

cleo-from-5-to-7It’s a joy to watch Agnes Varda dance. Or, more precisely, it’s a joy to watch her camera dance. Because that’s exactly what it does. Her film opens in color, catching our attention, vibrant and alive as the credits roll and a young woman (Corinne Marchand) gets her fortune read by an old lady. She’s worried about her fate. We can gather that much and this is her way of coping. Superstition and tarot cards but she’s trying and the results are not quite to her fancy.

And from that point on Varda’s camera continues to move dynamically but her film quickly turns to black and white as if to say something. Our main heroine, this young, attractive singer named Cleo has sunk into a sense of despondency. For the next two hours, she must wait it out to hear the news from her doctor. The news being whether or not she has been stricken with cancer. And if cancer then recovery or even….death. This is her existential crisis.

In the following moments, the camera falls back as an observer even donning her point of view from time to time and that’s the true enjoyment of this film. There are stakes laid out right from beginning and those remain in the back of our minds but it’s really about how we get there. How she gets there.

Cleo walks the streets of Paris browsing shop windows for hats, taking cab rides through the city, patronizing local establishments, resting at her flat with her assistant, and even calling on friends.

It becomes obvious that Cleo needs other people in her life whether she knows it or not. There’s an importance in solititude when she gets to examine the passing world and take in the serenity of running water in a park on a peaceful afternoon. But it’s the people that bring some color to her life. True, she does note that everyone spoils me, no one loves me, undoubtedly bemoaning the quick house call by her lover, the doting of her houskeeper, and the comical buffoonery of her pianist and lyricist duo.

But she also calls on her friend Dorothee who models by day in a sculptor’s studio taking in the bustling Parisian streets with all sorts of people but more importantly time for all sorts of conversation both superficial and sincere. They visit the local cinema and are treated to a silent comedy short (starring Nouvelle Vague power couple Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina). As the girl’s boyfriend rightly ascertains comedy is good for the soul. It can help alleviate a world of hurt.

Cleo’s final confidante comes quite by chance. A soldier on leave from Algeria as it turns out. He’s at first forward, then didactic, and finally utterly sincere. He’s perhaps just the type of person Cleo was looking for without even realizing it — someone who is perfectly obliging with conversation when she feels completely taciturn. Theirs is a quick friendship as he agrees to go with her to the hospital for the impending news and she, in turn, looks to see him off to the train station as he goes back from whence he came.

And does the film’s conclusion suffice? Not particularly. It’s abrupt and unsatisfying after all that prolonged wait but curiously Cleo seems at peace. Perhaps that is enough. What this film does impeccably is capture a moment as if it was pure and true and utterly authentic. It takes real world issues and a real world setting, synthesizing them into a fictional storyline that still functions as the every day would.

This is the world of the Cold War, war in Algeria, Edith Piaf in the hospital, Elmer Gantry, Bridget Bardot, and French pop music. It’s all melded together, bits and pieces, and moments and ideas and snapshots into a thoroughly engaging piece that becomes a sort of rumination on life and death and all those things that complicate living. If it all sounds like a jumbled mess of words it is and instead of trying to comprehend it by any amount of diction you should do yourself an immense favor and see Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 for yourself. If you are disappointed then I am truly sorry for you. Because it’s a wonderful film.

4.5/5 Stars

Model Shop (1969)

Model_Shop_FilmPoster.jpegAt face value, Model Shop is an ordinary film of little consequence but look a little deeper and it’s actually a fascinating portrait of the L.A. milieu in 1969. Part of that is due to the man behind it all.

Jacques Demy is among the foremost of French directors, most obviously for his work in musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. And Model Shop, his first American production, functions in some capacity as a type musical (featuring a score from SoCal rock band Spirit), while also incorporating Anouk Aimee’s character from his earlier success Lola (1961).

It’s a musical in the way that American Graffiti is a musical except its soundtrack is a mixture of Spirit and classical music in equal measures emanating from car radios. But it also maintains Demy’s type of storytelling where he weaves characters together with acts of fate.

The film follows a typical day in the life of Gary Lockwood who is an architecture grad floundering in a general malaise as he lives in a shack with his girlfriend who is making a go of becoming an actress. He’s not ready for a long-term commitment and the fact that his car is about to be impounded pretty much sums up his life.

On a whim, he follows a beautiful woman up into the hills by car and nothing happens right away, although he is taken by the panoramic views of Los Angeles. The sequences that follow develop L.A. into a character on its own. One moment George stops for a girl who quickly rolls a joint and offers him one as KRLA hums over the radio waves, in another, he is making his way down the Sunset Strip. There’s a substantial cameo from Spirit keyboardist Jay Ferguson, who genially gives George a helping hand while trading a bit of small talk. It’s might seem a rather odd inclusion and yet from Demy’s point of view, this group evokes something of the L.A. ethos. It’s understandable.

The biggest reveal comes midway through the film when George learns he’s been drafted to go fight in Vietnam. It’s a bitter twist of fate that shakes up his existence in only a matter of minutes. His freedom has instantly been constrained to a matter of days. That’s all the time he has to get to know this mysterious woman who he professes love to. These are the last moments he will see his girlfriend as their relationship subsequently goes down the tube.

So in some ways, Model Shop shares a bit of Demy’s earlier sensibilities but it by no means feels like he’s trying to transport his style flatly to an American audience. If I didn’t know any better, initially, I would say that this was a purely American production because it feels relevant and realistic to the degree that it can be. Except as he always does Demy is making a sort of fantasy, even if we don’t realize it at first. There’s the reverence of an outsider, someone who sees this City of Angels for its beauty and utopian qualities, while others have begun taking it for granted, seeing only the smog and the violence. That’s what Demy lends to this story, a hint of admiration. And in the moments the dialogue gets more introspective it hardly feels stale but really evokes a candidness.

It strikes me that George is mesmerized by the French woman, although his own girlfriend is very pretty. In my own mind, for me, it becomes a sort of an allegory for European versus Hollywood cinema. One perhaps is more glamorous, namely Hollywood, but other countries oftentimes have far more intriguing films. However, it’s important to note that Demy seems to have an appreciation for both. He more than some had a deep admiration for the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age especially.

Another fascinating caveat about this unassuming film is the fact that it could have featured a performance from a young unknown named Harrison Ford. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? But in the studio’s infinite wisdom they assumed Lockwood would be a bigger box office draw. It’s probably because he was in a little film called 2001 A Space Odyssey the year prior. For what it’s worth, Demy’s film didn’t do so well and it still resides in relative obscurity. However, it gives an image of Los Angeles that is rather like a time capsule, starkly different than Demy’s other work and still beautifully tied together with his previous films through a photo album showcasing faces that are very familiar. It’s a striking callback and in some strange way, it connects the director’s work together in a surprisingly satisfying way. Jacques Demy is still worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

This Left-Bank French film starring Corinne Marchand, follows a young singer in a real time as she waits to get back the results which will prove if she has cancer or not. The film has a unique color opening where the superstitious Cleo has her future foretold. The rest of the film follows her as she anxiously waits on her results. To pass the time she buys a new hat, rides in a taxi through Paris with her housekeeper, and also goes to a café. Returning to her flat, we see how privileged and spoiled Cleo is, first being visited by her busy boyfriend and then her joking composters. However, all the while she is constantly being reminded of what she is waiting for and what her fate might be. Cleo then meets with a friend who models and they drive through Paris together. Finally, she ends up at a park and in a quiet spot she becomes involved with a talkative soldier on leave from Algeria. They eventually take the bus to the hospital and she frantically tires to hear her results. Then, abruptly everything is okay and Cleo or Florence as we now know her, can continue living her life in relative peace. This film has many aspects of the New Wave with its often Chic Parisian atmosphere and a camera that constantly seems to be on the move. A memorable moment includes the silent picture starring Jean Luc Godard with Anna Karina.

4.5/5 Stars