A View Out: The Search for Identity in ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’

Identity is coiled through imagery, the way we view each other and the way we view ourselves. In Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, the realization of identity and self-fulfillment is undertaken through perception and perspective. Cléo, portrayed by Corinne Marchand, starts the film at 5:00 molded by the expectations of her profession as pop singer and the parent figures that control her life; by 6:30, she has begun to shape her own self, an image of identity fueled by a new confidence and hope. She escapes from the confines of her world to become a freethinking adult capable of making her own decisions.

The theme of an emerging identity is demonstrated through the film’s various chapters and stylistic treatises. Varda was primarily interested in telling a story, and her use of stylistic idiosyncrasies reinforces Cléo’s transformation. The act of searching for identity and acceptance gives the film a thematic undertaking of self-discovery and alienation similar to other French New Wave films. However, unlike a movie like Vivre Sa Vie, where Godard moves between showing and telling in a Brechtian manner, Varda’s chapters are formulated to directly express Cléo’s process of developing identity. Varda is interested in identifying where as Godard was interested in observing. Varda wants us to understand Cléo’s crisis, to connect with her plight as she questions her mortality, futility and self-image.

The prologue of the film takes place in a fortuneteller’s shop. Images of tarot cards, a fantasy that purports an understanding of truth, are shot in color while the reality of Cléo and her life (and the rest of the film) are shot in black and white. Here Varda purposely instigates a sense of confusion in the viewer. Why are some shots in overly saturated, expensive color and the rest in black and white? The confusion mimics Cléo’s search for a solution, both for her potential cancer and her own sense of identity and self-worth.

Why, on this glorious spring day, during the time when lover’s meet, must she be distracted by her pending medical results? Why does she both seemingly embrace her celebrity and deny it? How can she sing with such confidence but in reality be unsure of her position in life? The contrast and confusion set in this opening sequence initiates a dialogue between expectations and results, between the fantasy and reality that conjures identity and occupies Cléo and the audience for much of the film.

The segment in the hat shop is the largest signifier of this crisis of identity. During a virtuoso long take, we watch as Cléo tries on different guises and scrutinizes her own reflection. Her identity changes again and again before our eyes. The lack of editing in this sequence suggests that Cléo must wear a multitude of facades at once, none of which are her true self. She moves from hat to hat, trying on and dismissing each new suggestion to her. She finally decides upon the first hat she tried on. All the other hats were more flattering and seasonally appropriate, but she has chosen the one that most suits her current state of being, a winter hat of dark color and awkward angles.

This is the first time in the film Cléo has made her own decision. She has broken from the identity put on her by Angèle, her paid companion and pseudo parental figure. Cléo is admonished but chooses to go with her initial instinct instead of listening to the advice of others. Still, Angèle tells her she cannot wear the hat, because of a silly superstition of not wearing new clothes on a Tuesday—and she obeys. Wanting the acceptance of others, she is too insecure to follow through with her own decisions and shape her own self.

The theme of identity is strengthened by the abundance of mirrors in the shop. Mirrors have long been associated with issues of persona and the myriad nature of the self. Nearly every coming of age, self-discovery movie, from The Graduate to Black Swan, has implemented mirrors as a device whereby a character directly observes her own self, seeing who she is and wanting to change it. It’s no different for Cléo. As the camera follows Cléo throughout the shop, it catches her reflection time and time again. The audience is privy to view Cléo from multiple angles at once, coming to the understanding that there is not just one self.

Cléo is expected to portray multiple identities: singer, beauty queen, lover, and companion—none of which is ultimately fulfilling. With all these angles and guises, she is understandably confused, not sure which she should choose, unable to determine which of these selves is the truth. The hat shop scene, with its numerous reflections and wardrobe changes, uses misé-en-scene as an expression of Cléo’s inner crisis, a crisis situated on identity perpetuated through image.

Mirrors are used throughout the film in a myriad of ways that trap, confirm and fracture Cléo’s identity. In the early part of the film, mirrors confirm the beauty on which a large part of her identity has been perpetuated. After she visits the fortune teller, Cléo stops to look in a hallway mirror. The image of her face is reflected and repeated several times within the frames of the camera and mirror. Each reflected image is smaller and more confined. This shot connects the restricted gaze of Cléo to that of the viewer. Cléo is self-absorbed, a focal point for herself and—in her own narcissism—others. She is herself a spectacle, an image that is viewed but not capable of viewing. Others appreciate her beauty but she cannot appreciate it herself. She is an object who is not a part of her own life.

As Cléo attempts to distance herself from this false identity, the reflections revealed to her in the second half of the film show a new, multi-faceted, social self. In these new reflections, Cleo is not always the focus of attention. They are fractured, distorted images that Cléo shies away from. However, they are more accurate. They represent the uncertainty of her identity, a being composed not just of her present situation but of the past and future, as well.

This motif reoccurs throughout the film. In a café, Cléo looks at distorted images of herself in the reflections of glass and mirrors bisected by frames. She moves to create a whole image of herself in these various frames, but a new distorted image lurks around the next corner. Later, Cléo is viewed as part of a crowd, a diffused reflection in a shop window, a social view of herself as being one of many. She stops in front of a window that has just been pierced by a bullet, her face broken up by the lines of the shattered glass. In the dappled reflection of a pond, the ripples of the water distort Cléo’s image. Cléo finally chooses to acknowledge this multifaceted self when she drops a mirror and witnesses her own shattered reflection in its numerous shards. This is a major concern of Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’ book To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema. As discussed in the chapter on Varda’s film:

“Cléo’s development in the film can be understood in terms of a movement from reciprocal narcissistic enclosure, the painful perception of lack and absence, to an acceptance of the necessary intersubjectivity that structures all relations of culture. From the reassuring coherence of identity, in which Cléo is capable of loving only her (reflected self), Cléo is propelled by an awareness of separation and death.”

She will move from the conception of herself as the ideal object, a fully formed whole, to a fragmented individual existing among fragmented individuals, an actual person capable of dealing with everyday life.

The fragmentation is reinforced by Varda’s chosen structure of the film. Broken up into chapters that coincide with the running time of the film (as opposed, possibly, to the diegetic time from five to seven), each chapter reinforces Cléo’s position in life and who has taken charge of her identity. Almost every chapter title is named for someone who has influence in Cléo’s life, suggesting that her life is not her own to live. This is particularly of note of the numerous pseudo-parent figures hovering around her: her paid companion, Angèle; her older lover, who only pays her lip service; and the songwriters that control her career. It is only during the second half of the film, after Cléo becomes fed up with the images and guises she is forced to portray that her own name enters the chapter titles. And it is not until the end of the film that Cléo is able to connect, to share a chapter title with the young soldier Antoine.

Cléo’s crisis of identity erupts during the extended scene at her apartment. Across the several chapters that comprise this section, Cléo is forced to jump from being a pampered princess to charming lover to pop enchantress. The endless parade of parent figures with different expectations reinforces Cléo’s lack of control in her own life. During all these encounters, little consideration is given for her individual thoughts. It is evident through Corrinne Marchand’s performance that for Cléo this is just a performance, and a passionless one at that.

We watch as she performs exercises in a fluffy white robe out of mere routine than for any notable physical benefit. The camera lingers on her the cute idolatries that litter her apartment: kittens, jewelry, a four-post bed and pictures of her self. She goes through the motions with her lover, an ironically loveless ritual of mock companionship. They are positioned in equal thirds of the frame and the lighting is romantic, but like everything else the misé-en-scene is a masquerade. She cannot even tell this person what ails her, but rather insists at trying to act the role of companion that she feels will meet his expectations.

Her songwriters practice ditties that reinforce her role as a young, beautiful woman, sexy but naïve. She becomes upset at her songwriters for treating her like a child. She feels she is being exploited. “Caprice, caprice, that’s all you say… but it’s you who make me capricious. Soon I’ll be an idiot, incapable, a talking doll… you exploit me,” she says to all those who surround her. However when she sings lyrics that move beyond trivialities, that evoke emotions and a sense of loss and death she cannot face them, too close as they are to her own hidden feelings. She becomes isolated in the shot, a face framed against a black backdrop, almost aware of the attention being put on her self. She does not like it and escapes from the frame.

The sequence explodes as Cléo forces her self to take control. She changes out of her frilly robe into a simple black dress. She drops her hair extensions to go out in her real do. She grabs simple jewelry and the seasonally dated black hat she just bought, despite protests of superstition for the wearing a new object on a Tuesday. She is through with falsity, with fantasy and that for the first time the audience is seeing, at least physically, the real Cléo. It is now that she will begin a journey of understanding and self-discovery.

After leaving her apartment, Cléo walks around her neighborhood. She struggles with her identity: trying to blend in with sunglasses, but sticking out with her winter hat; ordering a drink, but refusing to wait for it to be served to her table; being one of many onlookers watching a street performer, but also being a performer and gauging others reactions to her song. The camera moves back and forth between different points of view; between first person subjective to third person omniscient to what could be perceived as flashbacks or dreams. The camera no longer simply portrays Cléo as an object, a reflection, but rather becomes one with her. In its subjectivity there is a realization through the camera that she is a human being capable of seeing as well as being seen. The viewer gets the sense that Cléo previously had some connection to this world of commoners, but since then, perhaps because of the notion of her own pop stardom, reinforced by others, she fears that she does not and perhaps cannot belong.

When she views her reflection lost amidst the crowd, no longer the center of attention, she becomes afraid. Her previous, misrepresented notion of self has been shattered. The uncertainty sparks a realization of her situation, a concern for who she has become and who she will be. Despite her medical situation, she wants to discover who she is. This is reinforced when Cléo goes to visit her friend, Dorothée.

Dorothée is revealed through a point of view shot from Cléo’s perspective. Dorothée stands strong, naked at the center of the room, her physical self on display for all to see. Many of the sculptures are roughly hewn; some are remarkably crude. None come close to mimicking the actual human form on display. Multiple facets of Dorothée’s likeness are one display. Cléo expresses alarm at this, her fears that others will view her and unleash a hidden truth she is not ready to face, a cancer inside of her. Cléo, uncomfortable in herself, cannot bear to view her own soul; a fact that is reinforced when she worries over that broken mirror that reflects her fractured image.

Dorothée has no such worries. She is unafraid of the truth revealed by art, in sharp contrast to the manufactured image of Cléo’s pop-stardom. She understands that the artists are looking through their own point of view, from their own position in the room, and that no two will be the same. “I’m happy in my body. When they look at me, I know they’re looking at something besides me—a form, an idea, I don’t know,” Dorothée states. Identity is not dictated by the looks and concerns of others, is not swayed by other people or medical predicaments, but created by one’s own understanding view of self and others.

Cléo finally discovers this confidence and ability of her self when she encounters the young soldier, Antoine. When Cléo first meets Antoine in the park, she is reluctant to speak to him. He is dressed in uniform and his persistent demeanor reminds Cléo of the type of attention fostered by her pseudo-parents. Her experiences over the first half of the film have led her to believe that such people are simply interested in her physical beauty or her status as a pop singer and not the real person underneath. However, Antoine shares a similar situation to Cléo. He is on a short leave before being shipped out to the Algerian War, something that he fears because he is both uncertain of the cause and his own mortality. As she talks to him, she comes to understand him, and by proxy, her own self.

Antoine has several attributes that Cléo sees in herself and others she wishes she possessed. He is helpful, nonobjectifying, and secure in his sense of self. Unlike Cléo self-absorption, Flitterman-Lewis notes that he “represents the opposite of narcissistic containment with its need for a reassuring vision of the coherence of identity.” This is reflected in his conflict for his current situation in the Algerian War. To many citizens of mid-20th century France, Algeria was viewed as not just a colony, but a legitimate part of France. The turmoil of the conflict was akin to a civil war. Antoine, portrayed as a caring and benevolent person, is conflicted because he is not sure he is doing the right thing by fighting, because he is not sure whom he is helping in this conflict.

The mood throughout this section is much more relaxed than any of the previous chapters. Each take is long and camera movement is nonchalant. Cléo and Antoine are framed together, becoming closer and closer in the misé-en-scene as their relationship develops. The camera idly captures the beauty of Paris and the garden, the glow of the sun on the actors faces. Unlike the scene with her lover in the bedroom, it’s more natural, the framing less artificially structured. The style reflects the spirit of the day. In contrast to whatever may come, this is a moment to be enjoyed. She defines her situation; her situation does not define her. Cléo can be at peace with others, and with herself; there’s pleasure to be found in life. She does not necessarily have to fit in with the crowd, but she does not have to be separate from it. She has a connection with him, not necessarily romantic or sexual, but based on who she is and who he is. They connect simply as people. Thus the title of the final chapter: “Cléo and Antoine.”

When Cléo’s doctor casually delivers the news that Cléo’s problem can be managed, that she will not die, it’s merely a formality. She has already started to overcome her disease. Instead of taking a cab to the hospital, a private bubble where she can hide, she takes the bus, basking in the open air and accepting a social life, as one amongst others. She has been able to openly verbalize her problems to Antoine, and in a way becoming accepting it. She will be able to carry on as long as she has a sense of her own self, her own image, her own identity. Cléo has the ability to face things, and if she does not, there are others who are concerned for her. She can live for herself, as a member of society.

The final shot of the film frames Cléo and Antoine on a park bench. They stare at each other, unsure at what their lives will bring them. Cléo is looking at another, not herself. She understands that her worth is based on the understanding of other human beings and her connection to them. Again, Flitterman-Lewis notes that in “accepting the possibility of death, Cléo accepts life, and in accepting herself, Cléo begins to accept others.” She greets this new identity with enthusiasm. In assuming her own vision, she takes on the power to direct her own life.

There’s still uncertainty, but there’s also hope. There’s still a war going on and there’s the chance Cléo’s medical problem will return, but she now has a grasp on her identity and self as a member of society. The camera pulls away before the film cuts to black. The film is only 90 minutes. Is it 6:30 or have we jumped to 7:00, 30 minutes lost somewhere amidst the lovers hours? Or is there another 30 minutes for these two to spend together? A 30 minutes that Cléo did not think she has, but now does. As noted in a Criterion essay by Adrian Martin entitled “Cléo from 5 to 7: Passionate Time”: “In the final moments of Cléo from 5 to 7, Cléo, even if her fate is not entirely decided or assured, is nonetheless released: into serenity, into love, and into a future that now seems possible beyond the second-to-second prison of clock-driven daily life.” The movie ends, but she has started a new chapter of her life.

In the works of many New Wave auteurs, a sense of alienation often leads to disillusionment. Unlike the pessimism of many of her contemporaries, Agnes Varda views alienation as a quest for identity, one that offers hope and freedom, no matter the uncertainties. Cléo takes control over her life and the image of herself. She’s able to develop and escape from the confines of films such as 400 Blows, La Jetée, Breathless, and Vivre sa Vie. Her journey of self-realization allows her to be at peace, to create friendships, and be comfortable in her own skin. She’s no longer only focused on being viewed but by the ability to view. There’s still a tenuous nature to Cléo’s life, and she has a hard road ahead, but she’s prepared to face it with a new sense of purpose centered on an emerging identity as a social human being.