Dir: Agnes Varda
Gen: Looking at Women
The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.
(Virginia Woolf )
Cleo from 5 to 7 was made by the New Wave director Agnes Varda in 1966. The film follows the story of a young and beautiful pop singer named Cleo who, upon hearing that she is terminally ill, begins to question why “she sees herself through the eyes of others” (Smith 1998, p.97). This leads her to reevaluate how she looks at her body in relation to her identity; if ill and no longer ‘beautiful’, as Cleo fears, she will be faced with “being ugly”, which she states is “a kind of death” in the opening of the film. However, as Varda explores throughout Cleo from 5 to 7, this is only the death of a patriarchally constructed image of femininity, which allows for the awakening of a femininity of Cleo’s own.
To put the film into context, by 1966 woman’s cinema had begun to attract attention at Cannes Film Festival, a notably male dominated arena to this day, spearheaded by directors such as Agnes Varda who proposed a new, female gaze. Varda challenged the traditional “unity” and “linearity” of the male (cinematic) gaze, proposing, in its place, a “nomadic gaze” that “deconstruct[ed] binary representations, especially those of women” (Whitford 1986, p.4; Powrie 2011, p.68).
The term “nomadic” is used by the feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti, whose ideas have been read in relation to Varda’s films by Phil Powrie in “Heterotopic Spaces and Nomadic Gazes in Varda: From "Cléo de 5 à 7" to "Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse””. Quoting Braidotti, Powrie states that “the nomad [the traveller]…‘expresses the desire for an identity made of transitions, successive shifts, and coordinated changes, without and against an essential unity’" (Powrie 2011, p.68). That is to say, a mutable and fluid identity that resists binary categories, such as masculine and feminine or subject and object.
In Cleo from 5 to 7, Varda’s interest in points of transition reflects the complex nature of feminine identity, because, by turning her attention to the space in between, she resists opposing the male gaze to the female gaze. On the contrary, the success of Cleo from 5 to 7 is that it underlines the entangled and fluid relationship between the two, most notably at Cleo’s point of transformation.
In the musical sequence Sans toi, in which Cleo sings “I am an empty house…alone, ugly and pallid…without you”, the chanteuse begins to see how her subjectivity has been shaped by patriarchal ideals. The song is called a “cri d’amour” by her managers, but it is clear that the image of woman, that their lyrics depict is one of a damsel in distress, incomplete without her saviour Prince Charming.
In the scene Varda doesn’t turn her back to the “active/male and passive/female” dichotomy of Hollywood cinema; rather, she uses her camera to reveal the techniques used to keep this binary in place (Mulvey 1975, p.16). To do so, the director uses a slow pan to move from a narrative shot that depicts the shared social space of Cleo and her entourage (Angèle, Bob the pianist and Plumitif the lyricist), to a psychological shot, an emotive close-up of Cleo singing. This technique shows the movement that, according to the traditional language of cinema, would usually be replaced by a splice and thus remain unseen.
By showing this movement, Varda blurs the boundary between interior and exterior space, mimicking the point at which Cleo realises that the exterior expectations placed upon her, to perform the role of the “capricious” femme-enfant, have manifest themselves as seemingly interior decisions. The pan dissolves the boundary (usually conjured by the splice in cinematic space) between the ethereal white of Cleo’s apartment and the boundless, wagnerian black backdrop associated with her inner thoughts. Her fairytale life at Rue Huyghens becomes yet another stage on which she performs.
At this turning point Cleo’s eyes are opened to the entrapments of the male gaze and to the inequality that it engenders and maintains between men and women. As her guardian Angèle states, Cleo’s feminine “performance” has ended. She disappears behind a dividing curtain in her apartment to discard of her previous self, and returns in a black dress that “goes with [the grave lyrics of their] songs”. The theatricality of the curtain alludes to the performed nature of Cleo’s identity, which is confirmed when one looks back to her innocently white, dare one say angelic, costumes in the first half of the film.
Once the curtain falls, Cleo is able to see how her life has been constructed to fulfil a feminine ideal in which she was transparent, manageable and thus easily contained by her entourage, but she does not yet know who she is or who she will become. As Powrie states, in Varda’s films “what matters is not where you are nor where you are going, but movement, transformation, becoming, of the object and of the subject”, the antithesis of the male gaze of Hollywood cinema, as outlined by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) (Powrie 2011, p.68).
On a meta-level Cleo can be seen as a cipher for Varda. The director was a key member of the French New Wave, adopting the youthful energy, dynamic cinematography and engagement with contemporary political concerns of the ‘young turcs’, but her films had a markedly female gaze that exposed the misogynistic treatment of women in other New Wave classics, such as The Little Soldier (Godard, 1960) or Masculin Féminin (Godard, 1966). In this milieu, Varda not only exploited the possibilities of the caméra-stylo, she used it to create a cinematic écriture féminine that wrote of and through a “nomadic” female gaze.
This gaze is epitomised by her fluid, handheld use of the camera, the very movement of which is “nomadic”; with pans and tracking shots, rather than splices, Varda’s camera shows process, transition and change. In doing so, Varda creates a cinematic language unique to herself, revealing the potential of the camera as a tool for woman to write her own narrative, outside of traditional (masculine) cinematic conventions.
Varda gave woman the chance to look at herself differently, and thus break the hegemonic male gaze. She resisted masculine binaries to look at the space of the feminine, the often hidden space of the in between, in which woman could create an identity of her own.
Featuring series curator, Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt and Caitlin Deery.
Where to watch
The full version of Cleo from 5 to 7 is available online or in stores across the UK.
Mulvey, L. (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16: 6-18.
Powrie, P. (2011) “Heterotopic Spaces and Nomadic Gazes in Varda: From "Cléo de 5 à 7" to "Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse.”” L’esprit créateur 51: 68-82.
Smith, A. (1998) Agnes Varda. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Whitford, M. (1986) “Luce Irigaray and the Female Imaginary.” Radical Philosophy 43: 3-8.
Wolf, N. (1991) The Beauty Myth. London: Vintage.
The Little Soldier, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960.
Masculin Féminin, Jean-Luc Godard, 1968.
The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959.
Women Reply, Agnes Varda, 1975.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.