Diagnosing the City: Malady and Metaphor in Cléo de 5 à 7

What has the New Wave got to say about illness and cities? Film historians now generally accept that Agnès Varda anticipated the New Wave with her film La Pointe Courte in 1954. Cléo from 5 to 7 is Agnès Varda’s best-known and commercially most successful film. It is the only New Wave film to be directed by a woman. It is widely taught on film-studies courses amid discussions of gender and spectatorship. At its most basic level, it is a film about one woman coming to terms with her illness, and the change that diagnosis can bring to an individual’s everyday negotiations in the city. Varda famously stated: ‘…by understanding people it is possible to understand places better, and by understanding places it is possible to understand people better.’[1] The film’s urban setting is clearly an important theme. But how does the presentation of Paris, in Cléo, allow us to better understand Cleo? And how does the broader discussion of space feed into the overarching theme of illness, or diagnosis?

The screenplay of Cléo came complete with a map of the protagonist’s journey through Paris. But the presentation of the city is more dynamic than a simple floor plan. It is interesting to note that the film’s coverage here dwells by and large on the left bank of Paris, the area with which Varda’s own New Wave group of filmmakers was associated, and the area of the city with the most artists’ studios. It is also the part of Paris with the most hospitals – a fact that might otherwise appear curious but gains significance when locating Cléo’s urban experience of illness (or medical experience of the city). The camera spends a lot of time in everyday exteriors, shopping streets, public spaces, caught up in the ebb and flow of traffic. These flows, and shots of the city in motion, as well as a preponderance of POV shots showing the city’s inhabitants caught up in motion, draw visual equivalencies between the space of the city and the human body. Shots of train stations and streaming traffic hint at liminality and circulation, in both the urban and medical sense. The city is transformed by Cléo’s observation of it. Cléo’s gaze, as it lingers over street performers and couples in cafes, is documentary in style, suggestive of a type of scientific observation commonly associated with medicine or anthropology. As Cléo waits for her diagnosis, she seems to be investigating and diagnosing Paris itself.

Shots of coffins, clocks, and hospitals as well as the dialogue relating to casualties in the Algerian War all highlight death and decay in spaces that are ostensibly filled with life. Death is not personal. It is public. The double entendre of the title has been much commented upon – the time between five and seven is traditionally a moment associated in French culture, or Parisian culture with extramarital affairs. In the context of the film, is Cleo’s tryst a tryst with death, as Valerie Orpen comments in her book? Is it an affair with the city? The film suggests a connection. Cléo’s journey is a negotiation between wellness and malady. In the context of broader artistic traditions which tend to equate urban dwelling with various forms of sickness, this film is interesting, precisely because Cléo’s walk through Paris allows her to come to terms with her illness rather than engendering it.

It is Cléo’s awareness of her illness that catalyses her journey through the city, prompting exploration. Despite tackling a relatively grim theme, Varda steers clear of wallowing in tragedy. Cléo’s diagnosis is over in a matter of seconds on screen and brings nothing new to the narrative. The word cancer itself is hardly spoken at all on the level of dialogue. The film could perhaps be guilty of an oversimplification and metaphorization of cancer, at the expense of a factual engagement with the treatment of the illness itself. In her essay Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag famously wrote about the danger posed to public health by cancer myths perpetuated by art and literature. I would argue however that Varda positively engages with old-fashioned notions of the disease, as it existed in the public imaginary in the France of the 1960s, negating outmoded perceptions of cancer and cancer patients. As the initial diagnosis comes from a fortune teller and not a medical professional, we do not know, until the film’s final moments, whether Cleo is really ill at all. The film thus turns more conventional narratives of ailing on their head. Cancer is theorized less as a medical phenomenon and more as a kind of malaise, a social condition – put another way, diagnosis is difference, another way of being other. Cléo, whose subjectivity is at the heart of the film, becomes a nexus for difference – gender, illness, even race. The film plays with prejudice and expectation and subverts these, turning waiting into motion, and sickness into a coming of age rather than a death sentence.

Orpen’s comprehensive exploration of Cléo includes a thorough analysis of the reception of the film when it was originally released in Paris in 1962. Orpen quotes one review, which states that watching Paris in Cléo was like walking on another planet.[2] The description is fitting as it suggests alienation. Like the city, Cléo herself is rendered alien. Her sickness sets her apart and changes the way she experiences the city around her, a space we know must be familiar to her. Through the film’s carefully constructed vision, we learn to see a city we think we know, differently.

The film handles what could be grim themes with tact and delicacy, in a decidedly non-didactic tone (visually and on the level of dialogue and narrative). It allows for a multiplicity of readings, leaving many of the above questions unanswered. As well as having a documentary aesthetic, and a realist audio-visual style and thematic, the film therefore, espouses a kind of philosophical realism too – as the questions we ask of ourselves and of the spaces we inhabit are often left unanswered.

– Sandra Bekvalac – May 2016


[1] Translation mine. ‘…en comprenant les gens on comprend mieux les lieux, en comprenant les lieux on comprend mieux les gens’, Varda, Agnès, Cinema 61, no. 60, October 1961, pp. 5-20, quoted in: Smith, Alison, Agnès Varda, Manchester University Press: New York, 1998, p. 60
[2] Orpen, Valerie, Cléo de 5 à 7, I.B. Tauris: London, 2007, p. 83