Bringing a feminine approach to the largely-masculine dominated cinematic era of the Nouvelle Vague, Agnes Varda has been a pioneer of French feminist cinema for over 40 years. Cléo de 5 à 7 traces 2 hours in a woman’s life as she travels around Paris anxiously awaiting medical test results. One of the key scenes in the film takes place at Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement, and Jen Wallace headed over there to discover which landmarks featured in the movie can still be found there.
Cléo de 5 à 7 was a pivotal film made during the Nouvelle Vague era, and yet its director, Agnes Varda, sometimes gets lost amongst the famous names of Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais. However, she deserves serious critical acclaim for bringing a different perspective to the cinema of her time. In Cléo de 5 à 7 a young pop singer journeys around Paris waiting for her biopsy while fearing she may have cancer. The film takes place in relative ‘real time’ and we view Paris from two perspectives: alternatively from her point-of-view and from an observer’s perspective as she interacts with the city. Thus, Varda plays with the subject/object debate of traditional cinema; Cleo is both objectifying and objectified.
A common trait of the Nouvelle Vague was to film outdoors, and Cléo is no exception. Iconic Parisian landscapes form a major part of the narrative, depicted in documentary-style camera shooting. The scenes in Parc Montsouris are hence critical to the depiction of Cléo’s character. As she enters the park, Cléo performs a song to herself (and to the diegetic audience) while dancing down a wooden staircase. It is a moment that breaks the previous realism of the film, playing with the Hollywood musical and the female lead as a star. Here, the natural geography of the area is used as a ‘stage’ for the protagonist: she uses the park as her theatre. This moment is both a mixture of the reality she is living in, and her fairy-tale imagination.
Later on in the park Cléo meets a pieds-noir Algerian soldier, on leave for a few hours in the city. They take a walk around the park past many key landmarks such as the waterfall and sculptures, whilst discussing Cléo’s fear for her future. This is a very subtle, yet important reference to the early 1960s time period in which it takes place. At this time the War of Independence in Algeria was drawing to a close, with France facing significant defeat and losing the last of its North-African colonies. Hence, Varda wanted her film to include this pivotal reference to French history as it paints a more accurate picture of Parisian life. The decision to include it is a conscious political message, adding weight to the film and a new dimension dealing with the modern era.
You can still see the wooden staircase and the waterfall by which Cléo and the soldier walk – the park remains largely unchanged. There are modern constructions obscuring the view, but it’s still a calm haven within the busy city. Even the green cockateels native to the park add a little exotic touch to the area. Varda herself doesn’t live too far away, on rue Daguerre. Cléo’s character is glamorous, successful and beautiful, but also has a fragile side of self-consciousness and insecurity. These traits are ultimately both reflected by and amplified in the Parisian landscape surrounding her, as this personal portrait of the city includes the glamour of milliners and jazz cafés, but also a raw edge to the city with subtle political messages set amongst the backdrop of the imported nature within the Parc Montsouris. In the self-contained world of the film, Paris is Cléo’s stage, but outside, it’s Varda who is using the city to tell her story.