Monday, July 19, 2010

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961)

In his cheerfully titled 1929 book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud points out the three sources of human suffering: the world itself, with its storms and earthquakes, the dangers of climate and geology; our own bodies, which--despite our best efforts (he tells us we have become a "prosthetic God," capable of artificially repairing bodily damage)--will one day let us down--and along the way give us great grief; and the most significant (and unfortunately "least regulated") source of pain, our relationships with each other. He concludes that "the universe is opposed to the program of the Pleasure Principle"--that is, our urge to be happy is constantly thwarted by the fact that we are alive.

In Cleo from 5 to 7, Agn├Ęs Varda relieves Cleo of one of those sources of pain: the world itself, which in this film is Paris, stripped of all pain, glowing with early-'60s, black-and-white beauty. Cleo is awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy, and spends her two hours wandering through the city, her realtionships, and her thoughts. Varda makes a meditative film that--because it is a "feminine" meditation--is both frank and wistful, as honest as it is uncertain. In Varda's hands, the French New Wave is almost serene, shaped by the urge to understand oneself and one's place in a painful life.

It's easy to fall in love with Varda's films: If you're a woman, she treats you with understanding and respect; and if you're a man, she allows a glimpse into that secret garden at whose gate we so often fumble, the flowers at our fingertips but untouched without help. And Varda provides more than a hint; it's as though I keep hearing her murmur, "You're getting warmer," as I follow Cleo from 5 to 7 in a dream that's more wish-fulfillment than I could've managed on my own.

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