• Rebecca Lerner

I always rush, which gets me

"You seem to be waiting for something, rather than someone."

This line from director Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 struck me as I watched the French New Wave film for the first time a few nights ago, sprawled out in pajamas that had doubled as my daytime attire.

Cleo from 5 to 7 follows the titular Cleo, a young singer living in Paris awaiting the results of a biopsy. The film revolves around how the people around Cleo perceive her, and more importantly, how she sees herself. We begin at a tarot card reading, where Cleo looks to someone else (and the cards) to tell her of her past, present and future. For most of the film, Cleo is despondent and bratty, constantly finding herself in the mirror and either rejoicing in her beauty or dejected by a distorted lack of attention. For Cleo, ugliness is a kind of death — beauty and attention prove she's alive and important.

Cleo's only solace comes in nature, away from the allurement of narcissistic self-aggrandizing or reproachful shame. Away from the city, she sings a theatrical number and dances down the stairs — for no one but herself.

In this midst of approaching her most authentic self, she meets a soldier named Antoine in Parc Montsouris. He sees her not as the other characters do, as spoiled or childish, but as an interesting woman with intelligence that rivals his. He calls her not by her stage name Cleo, but her real name, Florence.

Apparently, in France (at least in the 60s) lovers met between the hours of 5 to 7. But like Antoine tells Cleo, she's not waiting for someone. She's waiting for news, for excitement, for the chance to piece together her identity fragmented by fame, attention and expectations.

What do we wait for now? In quarantine, I feel I'm rarely caught up in waiting for someone, unless I'm in the cursed situation of being the first one on a zoom call, looking at myself in a grainy camera. I'm waiting for things to happen — a vaccine, for reform to the systems oppressing so many people in this country, for the end of the Trump presidency.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a seminal work from Agnes Varda, a woman who could transform a simple if macabre premise into commentary on the mundane yet intense nature of daily life — and rock a bowl cut.


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