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The Criterion Collection presents
"I'm frightened by people's fears."
DVD ReviewFor all the praise it has garnered, Cléo From 5 to 7 is not a great film. Compared to other French films of the era, such as Godard's Breathless and Alphaville, or Truffaut's Jules et Jim, Cléo does not measure up. While well shot and acted, the movie meanders and makes shallow statements. The film shows director Varda struggling to find her own unique style, and the final product is a beautiful mess.
The film revolves around the attractive pop star Cléo, the title figure. Cléo is worried that she might have cancer. The film chronicles the two hours before she gets her results, and also chronicles her transformation from spoiled pop starlet to mature woman. The problem is, this transformation occurs entirely within the last fifteen minutes of the film, and a man instigates it, which seemsto make the message of the film, "Only a man can save a woman." True, at an earlier point, Cléo shows signs of maturing by giving away a hat she just bought. But considering she's rich, and simply bought it on a whim, I don't feel her magnanimity represents her growth as a woman.
In an essay that comes with the DVD, Molly Haskell says, "The story is of a woman, a spoiled pop singer named Cléo (Corinne Marchand) suddenly confronting cancer‹and, what for her is even worse than death, the possibility of ugliness and disfigurement." In fact, this is not true. Cléo states a very real fear of death, as well as almost everything. It is safe to assume that one of her supreme fears would be of disfigurement, since she often worries about how she appears in the eyes of others; but considering her overarching fear of just about anything animate or inanimate, I don't think disfigurement rates much higher than sawdust.
That is one of the problems with the movie. Cléo is so superstitious and fears an absurd amount of objects and ideas that the audience can't help wonder just how different Cléo is without the threat of cancer hanging over her head. Cléo is also an amazingly superficial person; she spends most of the movie either admiring or pitying herself. The fact that her situation can only changed by meeting a marvelous man increases her superficiality instead of making her into the mature woman we're supposed to believe she's become. Another problem is that Cléo mentions she's been waiting for her results for two days. So why do we only see the last two hours? The film could have been a masterful psychological study if it had shown Cléo becoming increasingly worried about the results over the course of two days. As it is, she waltzes around Paris and complains about what seems more like a disease created in her mind than a physical condition.
While an hour and a half with a neurotic, thoughtless pop star is a study in tedium, the film is partially saved by Vardas's direction. This film is a bastion of the French New Wave. But this is the kind of film that someone who admires the French New Wave would make; it has all the trademarks of a New Wave film, but it lacks the unique style of a singular director. Vardas tries too hard to be Godard, only without Godard's innovative imagination. In her defense, I must say that she uses the camera well. She knows how to get the best out of Marchand and the locations she uses. Paris looks particularly stunning in this film, in a way similar to the Paris Cocteau depicted in his masterpiece, Orphée. Varda began her career as a photographer, and as such knows how to use a frame. The best scenes are those where the focus is on a seemingly unimportant character or object, while the main characters are off to the bottom or side of the frame.
In fact, much of the movie is devoted to Cléo's surroundings. Many of the shots focus on people around her, and several times the conversations of the main characters take a back seat to a conversation being had by two strangers a few feet away. This adds charm and realism to the picture. Unfortunately, the score undoes all the little touches of realism. While certainly beautiful, it is too big and melodramatic for what is essentially an intimate piece. The worst is when Cléo is trying out a song with her composers, and out of nowhere a string section comes in. I actually paused the DVD to make sure a string section hadn't snuck into my backyard. Most people don't realize the importance of having a score that really fits the picture, and in this case, it doesn't.
The film is littered with little cameos. Michel Legrand, the composer of the aforementioned, ill-fitting score, appears as one of Cléo's composers. The most cameos appear when Cléo goes to see a short film, which stars director Jean Luc-Godard, Godard's first wife, Anna Karina, and the famous French actor Eddie Constantine, star of Godard's Alphaville, among other films. While these cameos are fun to spot, seeing someone like Eddie Constantine for a split second took me completely out of the film. Of course, to watch a film within a film automatically takes you out of the larger movie, so all in all the cameos were well placed. Ironically, the short film with the cameos is better than the full film.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: D
Image Transfer Review: Although the transfer of Cléo was supervised by Varda, there are still several things wrong with it. It's dirty. It's not the dirtiest film I own (that honor goes to a VHS copy of City Of The Living Dead that has more dirt and scratches than footage), but it's bad enough to distract your attention from the story. Also, I noticed frames missing from several scenes. In fact, this film probably has the most missing frames of any movie in my library. The extant frames that aren't scratched don't look too bad; in fact, the transfer is pretty free of grain. The one scene in color is exceedingly grainy, but the black&white looks pretty clear. The transfer isn't as high detail as I would like, however.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: Cléo has a strange mono mix. There doesn't seem to be any set sound levels. Dialogue from the main characters is overly loud, while dialogue from inconsequential people in the frame is not too loud or too soft. Sometimes sound effects are very loud and sharp, and at other times, soft and muffled. When Cléo practices her song with her composers and the string section came in, I could hear definite distortion, despite having my speakers at a low volume. Later, when Cléo walks in a park and the score is loud and lively, my speakers played it without distortion, even though they had been turned up at that point!
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsWhile an intriguing idea, Cléo From 5 to 7 fails in its execution. A more three-dimensional main character, along with a different ending message, would have brought this film to life.
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