I watched this on 35mm this evening at a screening where the director was present. The print was brand new and looked spectacularly good. Really, just gorgeous to look at overall. These screenings are usually only about half full but this one was extremely popular apparently. There were people who had to be turned back because there was no more room. Surprisingly, the full house actually made the whole experience more fun. Everyone was really quiet and well-behaved and everyone really seemed to enjoy the film.
As for the film itself, I had a great time with it. I loved the way the film is temporally and geographically exact, something the director made a point of mentioning prior to the start of the film. She talked about how she wanted to eschew the general tendency that films have to cheat time and generally have time ellipses. What was charming was the way she talked about this. She specifically pointed out that she doesn’t think the time-cheat is a big deal… that it’s a legitimate cinematic tool / device but that at the time, she was equally interested in both documentary and narrative cinema and intrigued by the idea of making a film that would actually measure time as it’s measured in reality. Also that she wanted to show certain parts of Paris and ensure that the route that Cléo takes in the film would be the actual streets that people would use to go from pt. A to pt. B and so on. Just the way she said all this made it seem totally sincere and not gimmicky at all in any way.
Secondly, I loved the way the film has a sense of humor pretty much throughout and there are several scenes elicit laughter at one level but are also I think hugely reflective of the basic themes the film seems to be concerned with. For instance, there are scenes where we see Cléo being really childish and capricious, as she tries on hats at the store, the way she lounges about in her apartment and so on. While these scenes seem merely amusing at the beginning, I think they really serve to distinguish between the two halves of the film. In the first half, we largely see Cléo as someone who is looked at a lot, as a beautiful object that everyone finds attractive. On the other hand, in the second half, once Cléo takes off her wig and storms out of the apartment, we suddenly see Cléo getting out of her self-absorption and actually looking around herself. It’s as though she has opened her eyes and ears to the world around her for the first time.
Another related theme that sorta came across to me was this idea that the whole film is really so much about perception. As I mentioned above, there’s the way Cléo is perceived throughout the film and the way that she perceives herself even. Secondly, the way Cléo perceives everything around her is so dependent on her state of mind. For instance, things that would normally go unnoticed seem to upset her greatly given that she has this huge fear of death dominating her thoughts at this time. There are several examples of this in the course of the film – the African masks, the broken mirror, the weird street performers to name a few. All of these sights that she probably passes everyday suddenly become more visible to her and seem to worsen her general sense of foreboding.
I loved the scenes with Michel Legrand and the lyricist guy in Cléo’s apartment. Just such a fun sequence overall. I also had a lot of fun with Cléo and her friend, the nude model. And the entire silent film thing was just adorable. Another scene from earlier on that made me smile a lot as well is the scene where Cléo and her assistant (?) are in a cafe and her assistant is narrating a story and we see Cléo being distracted and along with Cléo, we too lose the story thread and seamlessly move on to eavesdropping on a conversation that another couple is having at an adjacent table.
Oh and visually the entire sequence in the hat shop with the mirrors is just exhilarating to watch*! A lot of scenes I think reflect the fact that she started off as a still photographer. She has this really awesome composition style.. like the kittens playing in Cléo’s apartment for instance. Also, loved the kid playing the musical instrument at the street corner and the way that music becomes the score as Cléo walks out the gate. So yeah, for a film that is primarily about 2 hours in the life of a woman who is waiting for a potentially fatal medical test result, I found myself smiling a lot during the film. And I think it is this lightness in handling a theme with a fair amount of gravitas is what I think I liked the most about the film.
Anyway, moving on to Agnès Varda herself, she was just utterly delightful. She was sprightly, good-humored, down-to-earth and just so vivacious. Prior to the start of the film, the director of the institute introduced her and invited her to come and say a couple of lines about the film. So she comes up to the podium and compliments him for remembering to kiss her twice this time as opposed to the one kiss he gave her yesterday (her first day here) which she said was very not-French. She then went on to warn him that he shouldn’t take this to mean that he can kiss her thrice tomorrow because that would just be taking advantage of the situation (It all sounds very cute coming out of the mouth of a very petite, old woman with a thick French accent). She then reprimanded him for calling her a “legendary” director for how could she be a legend when she was right there standing before his eyes !
She also took questions after the screening. Someone asked her how the politics of the day or her views on feminism are reflected in the film. She sounded genuinely surprised by the question and responded saying that neither of those were really the themes she had thought of while making the film. She said that the fact that the soldier had to go to Algeria, a war that most people did not believe in, was pretty much the only political thing in the film and she said that even that was really secondary to the idea that everyone is afraid of death, which she said was the bigger point she was making. As for feminism, again she said she hadn’t really thought about it explicitly but that the film is probably open to a feminist reading given that it is ony when Clèo starts to look around herself and listen to people as opposed to merely being looked at that she finally finds a way to overcome her fear.
Another question was about the silent film sequence within the film and someone wanted to know why she chose to have that. She said that she had always noticed that people tend to lose interest in the film at some point during the film and that she was particularly afraid that people would get tired of walking around Paris with Clèo. So she wanted to have something that would distract people from Clèo’s troubles and revive their interest in the film. She said that at the time she and Jacques were good friends with Godard and Anna Karina and would meet them frequently and that this was the phase when Godard would wear his dark glasses at all times. She said that it annoyed her that he would do that because he had lovely eyes . So she wanted to create a situation that would require him to take off his dark glasses and she ended up writing this little joke film about a man who wears dark glasses and sees the world as a dark place and then takes off his glasses and sees that everything is bright and lovely. And then she said that Godard and Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine and a bunch of other folks just showed up one day so she could shoot the silent film bit. It really sounded like they had a great time doing it. Apparently the producer of Clèo served as both the ambulance driver and some other character in the short.
She also spoke a little bit about how the street scenes in Clèo really blend documentary and narrative styles. She had asked the street performers to perform at those specific places so Clèo could bump into them but the rest of the footage seems to have been completely natural. Similarly, barring a couple of cafe guests who were actors, a lot of the other patrons discussing art and so on were just normal cafe guests who just happened to be there at the time.
She clarified that the film only follows Clèo from 5 to 6:30 even though the title says 5 to 7. The title, she said, refers to a French custom where couples meet to make love between the hours of 5 and 7 in the evening. She doesn’t really see the ending as being about Clèo being saved by meeting a man. She sees it more as Clèo finally listening to other people and making a connection and being able to look beyond her own fears.
She also talked a bit about the French New Wave not really being a school or a particular cohesive movement. She said that she felt that all of these filmmakers had different concerns and everyone was really just doing what they were interested in at the time.
Finally, someone at the back mentioned that 2 sequences in the film in particular reminded him of scenes from Antonioni’s Blowup and he wondered if Antonioni had ever acknowledged the influence of Clèo or Agnès on his film. Firstly, she clarified that her film had come out first and seemed both relieved and delighted to hear that indeed it had . Then she said that she had met Antonioni on multiple occassions but that he just seemed to share a different disposition from her own. She said that while she herself liked to make bad jokes and be silly, he seemed a lot more serious. She then went on to say some nice things about him and his films and concluded by saying that while she admired the man and liked his films, he wasn’t the kind of person, you know, she would go out to have beer with .