Cléo (Corinne Marchand) has decided to visit a tarot card reader to find out what will happen in her future, and she is told to sit down and choose nine cards from the deck. The old lady examines them and informs her they represent her past, present and future, but is quite vague on the third, telling her she is about to experience great change though not specifying what that may entail, not even after Cléo picks another three cards to clarify. However, she feels he has been told enough to confirm her suspicions about the next two hours then thanks her and leaves: out of earshot, the old lady informs her husband that Cléo does not have long to live, and indeed she has been awaiting test results...
Agnès Varda directed her first feature of note with this beguiling scrapbook of an experience which passed by in real time to show what happened to its heroine as she goes on one of those emotional journeys we're often told are important in the cinema, that the lead character must start from point A and end up at point B somehow changed. This may sound trite, but this was a perfect example of that rule, as we spend an hour-and-a-half with Cléo (not two hours - the 5 to 7 part of the title was intended to sound racy in an afternoon delight kind of way) as she starts out naïve and self-regarding, but ends up having realised that things were both as bad and not as bad as she feared.
And in that realisation, all those possibilities she expected to have been closed off to her by death might not happen at all, or rather they will happen if good fortune is with her. There was a theme about superstition running through this: to begin with, that tarot reading (the only scene of the movie to feature colour) geared us up for either Cléo to be proven correct in her largely ungrounded beliefs, or wake up to the fact that there's no way for anyone to really know the future with any great certainty, as even the stuff you expect to happen cannot be entirely relied upon, and there's always some other element that will come into play you could never have predicted. All she has is her diagnosis.
Other bits of business such as that - her maid Angele (Dominique Davray) refuses to ride in a taxi with an unlucky number, her best friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) breaks a mirror and irrationally fears the worst - lent the mood a semi-mystical tone, yet this was offset by a realism and at times a genuine playfulness, as if Varda was keen to keep the audience engaged and therefore served up as many different flavours of cinema as she could dream up within her means. It was a plan that worked, well, like a dream, as that Paris of 1961 comes across like some fantasy realm where all possibilities were cast in front of Cléo and her generation, and it was up to us to judge whether they had used their time wisely; soon there would be the student riots in France, and did they change very much?
This was pre-riot, essentially, though we did see rowdy students who the middle-aged Angele looks upon benevolently, but that sense of dawning unrest was in the air when there is an incident in the street that spooks Cléo and Dorothée, or the soldier she meets in the park, Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) who despite being a gentle soul has been drafted to Algiers to fight against the civil uprising there. Things are not calm by any means, inside or outside of Cléo's bubble, but this was an "all of human life is here" sort of project that did so on a small scale, with Varda's camera often happy simply to observe her actors wandering down those streets or driving around, adhering strictly to her own ninety minutes in ninety minutes rule which was broken up into chapters, compelling in its simple manner. There was even time for a comedy interlude as her Nouvelle Vague mates helped her out with a silent film routine; if you ever wanted to see Jean-Luc Godard do comedy, here was your chance. Overall, this avoided anything arch by stating an optimistic truth, there may be trouble ahead, but it won't all be bad either. Music by Michel Legrand.
Aka: Cléo de 5 a 7
[This is available on the Agnès Varda Blu-ray 8-disc box set along with six other features, a selection of shorts and a wealth of other interview material with the director, one of the greatest woman filmmakers of all time.]