So a long time ago (or what seems a long time ago) in my reflectionary post on Adrian Martin’s Cinemascope interview “Responsibility and Criticism” and an Italo Calvino book I had recently read, I stated that I had been inspired with an idea that I’d like to take a stab at when in my reviewing.
Despite appearances of the opposite, I never forgot about it, and have been working on this idea on and off since that time. It was an idea inspired by something else I had been reading at that time—the work of academic/poet/essayist Anne Carson (which I in turn wrote about here). Needless to say, I had been quite intrigued by a technique Carson employs—that is, an academically-minded essay or reflection followed by a poetic interpretation of the main themes and concepts that had been discussed. Taking to heart Martin’s comment that “criticism can take an infinite number of forms: it can be soliloquy, meditation, dialogue, polemical rant, patient description, a work of fiction, a text running ‘parallel’ to a film… etc” I thought I would attempt this technique myself.
Now mind you, I am not a poet. I love poetry and seem to surround myself with people who write poetry, but have always felt my occasionally-indulged creative talents lie in prose and reviewing/analysis. But I made the attempt, and came up with the poem found below. It went over well in the writers group I participate in, which gives me the confidence to post it here (in other words… be nice).
Reflections on Varda’s Reflections in Cléo de 5 à 7
I’m as guilty as anybody of indulging in hyperbole far too often than should be permitted, but I mean what I say that a recent revisit of Agnés Varda’s Cleo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) was a rather rapturous experience, if not actually teetering towards the miraculous. The first time I saw it, years ago, the Novelle Vague was something just entering my cinematic consciousness—and I’ll admit, Cléo left me more than a bit disoriented (that was it? That is all?) But it was undeniable there was something about it… and it stuck with me. Vaguely.
As far as I can tell, most commentary on Cléo tends to run along similar lines: “is or isn’t the ending a feminist statement?” or otherwise an analysis of how the female perspective of the director manifests itself in the film (Pauline Kael declared that it was one of the few examples of a women directing where one can actually detect a difference). And while all of these topics and issues are of great interest to me, what I found myself most intrigued by during this viewing was the preoccupation with mirrors and reflections, and how Varda uses them throughout the film to demonstrate the growing internal and emotional fragmentation of the title character.
Which makes sense, of course, as the film is all about an afternoon where a beautiful young woman finds her world—and herself—falling to pieces. But the narcissistic function that the mirror serves in the beginning sections of the film—reflecting back reassuring images of health, beauty and vitality—is slowly transformed into a means for Varda to depict Cléo’s fracturing sense of herself and the world around her. By end of the film, the function of the mirror is shifted from a means of reflecting an external reality to giving a glimpse into a much more subjective, rapidly-shifting internal state.
Witness the early, extended sequence in the hat shop, surely one of the most famous in the film, and how Cléo moves in circles around the shop, openly admiring her reflection in the multiple mirrors (and windows) set before her.
Surely, Cléo seems most at ease among her own reflection, and she clearly revels in gazing at herself (which is in itself makes for an interesting counterpoint to the equally famous scene shortly thereafter where the gaze—albeit the gaze of others—takes on a highly sinister quality).
And as if to emphasize the use of mirrors as a reflector of an external reality, Varda uses a mirror in the hat shop scene to briefly reflect the a world beyond Cléo through a glimpse of two policemen on horses somewhere outside the shop. Further emphasizing the mirror’s function as a reflector of external reality, it importantly stands as a glimpse of the world beyond Cléo’s own frame of vision.
But soon mirrors, glimpsed just as frequently, though not as overtly given pride of place, take on a more internalized quality, mirroring Cléo’s increasingly introvertedness, and her growing awareness that her world is cracking before her very eyes. This is made explicit in the café scene where Cléo, recently stripped of her costume-like hairpiece, turns on one of her songs on the jukebox and waits to be recognized (they don’t, wrapped up in their own little unseen lives and stories). Taking a look at the column Cléo is sitting next to. her reflection literally has gone to pieces—a much different situation that the countless mirrors she stared into not long before in the hat shop. It’s a remarkably simple visual metaphor (as Cléo emotionally begins to fall to pieces, so does her reflection) but one that is tremendously effective.
After the scene in the café pieces of mirror begin to appear frequently, perhaps most prominently when Varda’s camera lingers on the splinters of a small mirror that has shattered after Cléo clumsily drops her purse. Cléo and her friend crouch down over the purses’s scattered contents, and as her friend gathers items together, Varda camera watches as Cléo stops and silently stares into one of the mirror fragments. Only an eye (which is often labeled as the window of the soul) can be glimpsed in the tiny piece of glass. For one following the use of reflection in the film, it’s an extremely moving moment to recognize Cléo’s futile search for a full reflection, and indeed, a former sense of wholeness.
During the last section of the film, taking place in the Bois du Boulogne (and depicting what appears to be a budding, if unexpected prelude to courtship) the previous preoccupation with mirrors and reflections on both the character and director’s part is abandoned entirely. It appears as if Cléo is finally beginning to move beyond her narcissistic self-absorption, and that the tentative, rather awkward but completely genuine human interaction will help pull together the pieces of a damaged, fragmented self into something once again resembling a Whole.
[last ballad de la chanteuse]
Today is the beginning of the end of life (my life)
So I banish from mind
The sympathetic stare obscured behind thick skins of empty hospital white,
(they feed me lies)
“Cléo, Cléo, you’ll be all right.” I leave
and once reentering the land of the living
Motion sweeps me aside but I still hear beneath the clamor
That quiet whisper:
But no! I pick up the pieces of the self
And fashion them into hats
And songs to sing
Some kind of imitation of the reckless living
Abandoned to the day before yesterday
Spinning frantically around shops
Unable to stop, I wrap myself in reflections
Of mirrors and glass, a desperate attempt
To grasp youth that’s fleeting Sunglasses slipped over my eyes transform the sunlight into a refraction of night
I wander the shadow-strewn wasteland Paris has become
Drowning in the sounds of the city and eyes that glare
Unable, uncomprehending the ugly truth
Behind the beauty
Behind the bob of blonde hair and confident stride.Alas! Pieces of self slip
out of hand
Scattered across concrete sidewalks, down narrow stairs.
Gather them quickly
Without appearing that I care.
(But I do. I do.)
Car horns toll, toll for me
A cacophony of busy lives, of life—
Surrounds, swallows what pieces are left of me.
And through it all I hear, quietly, incessantly:
And from somewhere, a heartbeat.