French cinema is dynamic, innovative, and aesthetically perfect, while also possessing a powerful ability to make anyone depressed after the movie ends. But that’s fine, I can handle it. Here’s a rundown of what it was like to attend the screening of their latest installment, cinematic masterpiece: Cléo from 5 to 7.

When I told a friend that I was going to cover Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for Bwog, to my surprise, they did not give the classic and empty “oh cool” reaction but began emphatically nodding in recognition. “That’s a really important movie, right?” they asked. My friend is a SEAS kid, a  biochemical engineer minoring in finance. This is not an attempt to scoff at the mere possibility that engineering students have any artistic inclinations (which they do) but to make note of the universal power and reach of Varda’s groundbreaking work. 

Varda’s filmography is a part of the revolutionary cinematic movement known as the French New Wave. The New Wave was an art film movement that took place between the 1950s and 60s which was mostly characterized by a rejection of established film conventions and the use of creative experimentation in its place. It ushered in a new era in cinema; one that prioritized individuality, freedom, and realism over established structures that had governed cinema for ages. It aimed to shoot as quickly as possible, sacrificing the glamour found in mainstream productions in order to create more spirited and modern films than those found in commercial cinema. 

The film was being screened as a part of the film festival “Mauvais Genres: French Cinema Takes on Gender,” an event organized by the Columbia Maison Française. At 6:45 pm, I walked over to the elusive Teacher’s College and after various wrong turns found the Cowin Auditorium. The audience was just the right size: not packed, but full enough such that there was the buzzing energy of anticipation in the air. I had just found out minutes before that Agnes’ daughter, Rosalie Varda, would be delivering a message before the beginning of the movie. The expectations, thus, were understandably very high. 

In a box-office dominated film industry, where every movie available in cinemas is either a sequel, a bland all-female cast remake (sorry, they’re not good), or yet another installment of  “A Cinderella Story,” it was a breath of fresh air to be able to see a movie I was genuinely interested in. And it was projected on a big screen! Not on a sketchy “123movies” online website with way too many disturbing advertisements! I was very excited. 

If I were to give you a one-sentence summary, I would say Cléo from 5 to 7 is about death, decay and illness. However, it is just in the end that we actually understand what illness is the actual cause for the main character’s malaise.

The film opens with a tarot-reading, the only scene in the film that appears in color. It is shot from above; we only see the clairvoyant woman’s hands flipping through the ambiguous messages of Cleo’s future. She receives concerning news: there is a sickness inside her. Cleo assumes she is speaking of cancer, she breaks down into tears while at dinner with a friend.

Our heroine is extremely superstitious. Throughout the movie, she will resort to every imaginable omen about ‘back luck’ to explain her extreme paranoia surrounding death. Slowly, we come to understand that Cléo is awaiting a very important call, at 7 pm; a call that will give her medical results which will determine whether she must prepare for imminent death. It is now 5 pm, and we will accompany her through the restless process of waiting to tell her the direction her life will take.

We experience the film as voyeurs, witnessing a woman unsuccessfully grappling with her mortality. Nevertheless, we begin to realize that it is not the idea of a positive test result that frazzles her, but the idea of dying without having enjoyed life. As she waits, Cléo begins to assess the state of her life, tallying up all its different parts. She comes up short. Cléo is struck by the realization that she is deeply and profoundly unhappy. She is in a relationship with a man that barely visits her and who completely dismisses her when she claims to feel ill. Most people she interacts with worship her, but solely because Cléo makes sure she is the physical embodiment of perfection, the epitome of the classic French beauty, every time she walks out the door. She is a singer, but does not like how she sounds when her songs come on the radio. Her apparently bountiful life is just a mirage for a big collection of things that just makes her feel empty. In other words: What’s worse than dying? Doing so, feeling as if you are leaving nothing behind. 

I’m not sure if I should include what happens at 7 pm. I’m not entirely sure if it matters. This film is beautifully shot, aesthetically stunning, divinely written, and delivered with a lot of tenderness. Yes, as you can tell, I loved the movie. But what most struck me is how the underlying message of the film carries over to our current realities and still retains its power. In an environment and institution as the one we belong to, it is not hard to be lost in things that, when one takes a step back, you are able to see actually hold very little value. We are prone to lose ourselves in fantasies: of love, of beauty, of profession. In the end, for such an intellectually complex piece, we are left with a relatively simple question: When your 7 pm comes, what will still be important to you? Take a moment, think about it and once you know the answer, hold onto it very tight. This is all that matters.

my idol via The Mantle