Like Vivre Sa Vie, this is another French New Wave film that plays with time a bit – only going the other direction. Instead of dispassionate series of spaced-apart vignettes, we follow Cléo (Corinne Marchand) during a very specific window of time, almost in real time. But this is no random slice-of-life – this specific “5 to 7” window is time Cléo is anxiously wanting to pass before she calls the hospital to learn the results of a medical test for possible cancer.
And Cléo is not really the sort to do something productive to keep her mind off things. She visits a psychic hoping for a sneak peek at her future; she goes hat shopping with her maid Angèle (Dominique Davray); she has a desultory meeting with her sort-of-boyfriend José (José Luis de Villalonga) and then her accompanist for her night club act (Michel Legrand, who also composed the film’s music). She wants to be with friends, she wants to be alone. She wants to stay home, she wants to go out. She’s antsy because she wants to do something, but there is literally nothing to do but wait for time to elapse.
That’s a weird mindset, and one I know well. When I did theater, there was always a 15 or 20 minute interval before each show started, between the moment when we opened the doors to the audience and the moment we began the show; and it always drove me slowly bats because there was a whole host of things to be done, but only once the show started; and before that appointed time there was nothing I could do but wait for time to pass. I usually paced a lot, making repeated strolls across the stage to “check it was set properly” or jaunts down to the box office to “check if anyone was running late”, but really I was trying to burn off nervous energy (and quickly learned to tell the poor volunteers in our box office as such). You have a whole plan in place ready to launch, and you know it’s going to be a beast of a thing so you want to just get going already – but you can’t, you need to wait for the appointed hour. And it’s too much of a beast to let you fully distract yourself while you wait, so you end up pacing and antsy and following any whim you get for lack of not knowing what else to do with yourself.
As it turns out, you probably can learn a lot about a person from seeing what whims they tend to get in that state, so director Agnes Varda’s choice to give us these two hours from Cléo’s life still gives us a window into her character. She’s superstitious; she and her maid have a lot of shared beliefs in things like tarot and lucky numbers (they pass up a taxi at one point because it’s number 13), they are afraid of breaking mirrors, they don’t believe in carrying or wearing new clothes on a Tuesday. She’s a little vain; Cléo keeps checking herself out in mirrors throughout the day, and at one point tells herself that “as long as I’m beautiful I’m still alive” and while shopping she muses that “everything in here looks good on me”. She loves attention; José’s visit is ill-timed and perfunctory, but she still seems miffed that he’s leaving after only a few minutes. She plays up her “illness” to her accompanist so he fusses over her. While visiting a cafe, she studies the jukebox and selects one of her own records, subtly checking out the crowd when it starts playing – and is disappointed no one notices.
She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, basically, but every so often she remembers what she’s waiting for and her mood darkens. She tries rehearsing a plaintive ballad with her accompanist, but the lyrics are unusually dour and it just reminds her of her mortality and she stops. She tries to distract herself with a walk and runs into what looks like a funeral procession.
Only towards the end, when she runs into a soldier on leave from the Algerian War (Antoine Bourseillier), does she seem to find some peace. The soldier is at similarly loose ends, trying to kill time before he has to catch his train back to his base; he starts flirting with Cléo, but gradually realizes she’s Going Through Some Stuff and extends more of a sympathetic ear. He even offers to accompany her to the hospital if she’ll in turn see him off at the station. It’s enough to start snapping Cléo out of her self-obsession, and just before the final scene she even suggests they blow off the hospital and get coffee. “I’ll just call the doctor tomorrow, it’s fine,” she assures him. We still do get a resolution for Cléo before the end anyway – but we also get to see her find some peace for that restlessness, and I’m not sure which is the better outcome.