reflections on endless reflections…

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:
(death death)

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 thinking.
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:
(death death)

And from somewhere, a heartbeat.

-jesse ataide


17 thoughts on “reflections on endless reflections…

  1. Insightful observations, as always, Jesse. Mirrors have a way of becoming trite visual metaphors, but–you’re right–Varda handles it with simple compassion and elegance. When I saw the film last year (on the big screen, no less), I was more focused on Cleo’s questionable arc and deeper appreciation of life amid her scattered thoughts.

    The poem ain’t bad, either–I quite like it. I, too, am a writer who is surrounded by poets but fears that style of writing–perhaps its the brevity of that form. I’m too verbose.

    The second stanza and this line, in particular, flow nicely:
    “To grasp youth that’s fleeting Sunglasses slipped over my eyes transform the sunlight into a refraction of night”

    Perhaps I like the sunglasses bit so much because I think sunglasses are an inanimate object with such strong character (particularly when/where one chooses to wear them).

    I’m not such a fan of them, really (besides the fact that they look absurdly silly on me–if I wear them, it’s often as a fashion joke). When I was wandering around each European city, I never felt like I was fully absorbing a city if I was wearing sunglasses, so I refused to wear them. Maybe it’s something about the unnatural and non-confrontational quality of sunglasses.

    Wow, what a ramble. I apologize [consider this SPAM].

    Please continue with these types of entries; I find them fascinating.

  2. Hi Jesse – outstanding entry. I love the screen captures and how you speak to them – makes me want to take a break from video essays and get some great screen captures together. It helps of course to have a film that lends itself as wonderfully to still images as Cleo does.

    Great work with the poem too — it’s evocative and you find a new way to convey much of what you discussed in essay format. Somehow I don’t recall the film being as morbid as your references to death, but maybe I was too capitvated by the etereal beauty of how it moved from moment to moment. I like how you used “toll” to describe the sound of car horns – I don’t think I’ve ever seen car horns described that way, and it works!

  3. Hey Nick-

    Been a while since I’ve seen you in these parts! :)

    Thank you for the kind words, especially regarding the poem. And what’s funny is that the line that you liked was actually messed up when I posted it… there is supposed to be a break between fleeting and sunglasses, and “sunglasses” is supposed to start a new stanza. Ah well, I’m glad it worked for you regardless! But I’ve got to say, I’m not much of a sunglasses wearer myself.

    I’m going to attempt this type of entry again… though who knows how long will be until it appears here! Not being a poet, ideas and inspiration for poems are proving to be surprisingly hard to come by…


  4. Hey Kevin-

    It’s good to hear from you–it seems like it has been a while. I should actually say that your branching out into different modes and mediums of reviewing has been another source of inspiration…yours are just a little more hi-tech than mine!

    Also, this time around I really noticed how Varda’s background as a photographer really shines through–nearly every frame could serve as a stand-alone still. But it doesn’t slap you in the face like say, an Antonioni film does. I must admit–I’m rather in awe of Varda’s eye as a visual artist.

    I hear what you’re saying about the strong emphasis on death in the poem, which is why I put them in the paranthesis. When I read the poem aloud (or say it in my head) the word “death” is said in a lower tone, perhaps even a whisper. Because that’s the feeling that I got from the film and the character of Cleo–it’s something that’s being ignored, but it’s quiet presence is always lurking just beneath.

    And I’m glad somebody finally said something about the tolling–that was one of the lines I was most pleased with! “Tolling bells” is such a ubiquitous image in poetry, and invoking car horns is not only a more contemporary image, but references the “city noise” that is heard throughout the film as well. But then, the things we often think most clever in our own work almost never seems to be the things that others do…


  5. Ali’s Response at the Classics Film Board at IMDb:

    “OK, OK, you win…; I did; go to your blog, I did; read the whole of it, with great pleasure, particularly the screen-cap of the column which was a lovely example I hadn’t ever noticed (I tend to remember the shattered café-window, which has a similar effect). Couple of embroideries (what would you do with these?):

    -the hat-shop reflections, not just in mirrors on the inside, but in the windows which project a ghostly reflected Parisian traffic onto Cléo as the camera circles round on the outside. As far as I can recall this doesn’t happen in he second part of the film.

    -the reflections that Paris sends back to Cléo of herself in other people, or figures of other people: distorted, in danger, indeed fragmented. Suppose that the Frog-man, the Sword-man, the old ladies she meets in the streets of the second part are literally mirror-images to a still self-obsessed young woman who’s learning to look outside, but who still looks first of all for her reflection, and is inclined to assume that’s what she sees. She tells Dorothée that she wouldn’t dare be an artists’ model because ‘they might discover a flaw’. We can see the students’ various versions of Dorothée, which certainly aren’t pure reflections: Dorothée doesn’t bother looking at all, and we know with common sense that if these figures ‘reflect’ anything it’s either their makers’ inexperience or their makers’ subjective ideas, not ‘flaws’ in Dorothée. But one feels that Cléo wouldn’t take them that way: that she’d read them as pure reflection.

    Dark glasses make one see the world dark, but do they also send back reflections? (Assuming the filmlet is a ‘reflection’/version of something in the main story).

    Has your DVD got L’Opéra-Mouffe on it? Have you seen it?

  6. Rigor’s Response at the Classics Boards on IMDb:

    You work here is amazing. I really appreciate your blog and your experiment with this style of reviewing. I also really appreciate access to the Adrian Martin interview that was one of your sources of inspiration.

    Almost all of Varda’s work is open to this kind of revisiting and reinterpretation. My respect for her only grows with every revisiting of Cleo on any number of other films.

  7. Lee’s Response at the Classics Board on IMDb:

    I just bookmarked your blog… but I’ve bookmarked it as “Spinning’s Blog.” It’s more recognizable to me that way.

    Cléo was one of the best film discoveries I’ve made during the past year. I suspected there were depths to explore on further viewings, and you’ve certainly plumbed some of them.

  8. I saw Cléo for the first time a few months ago, and I’ve been aching for a second viewing ever since. The visuals really knocked me out yet there was this feeling that I didn’t grasp the real essence of Cléo’s character. Your first time feelings were similar to mine. Also, your poem is really good! I particularly like the bits in parentheses: they really give the impression of an inner voice, of a different rhythm.

  9. Great stuff, Jesse, I loved it all. By the way, I had not read the Calvino before you mentioned the connection, thanks! Coincidentally, I am about to teach a course called “The Experiment of Criticism” at Monash Uni here, and in week 3 we tackle … CLEO, FROM 5 TO 7! As filtered through Roger Tailleur’s magnificent POSITIF review from the time (1962), and also several appreciations written years a aprt by Raymond Durgnat. Keep up the good work!

  10. Adrian-

    Funny, I was pretty convinced you were aware of Calvino’s essay at the time, though I can’t exactly remember the details now. :) I am not acquainted with Tailleur’s review of Cléo, though it sounds like now I’ll have to track it down. Thanks for dropping by–I really appreciate it.


  11. Kathleen-

    One thing I find interesting about <i>Cléo</i> is how slight, or at least not particularly deep, it can seem at first glance. But it seems nearly everybody says something along the lines of “I need to see it again–I didn’t grasp it the first time around!” I think that in itself is a good indication of a very rich work of art. I’m eager to give it another look myself–as well as become acquainted more thoroughly with Varda’s filmography.

    And thanks for the update–I’ll send you a few thoughts soon.


  12. Some trivia for you:

    1. In the book VARDA PAR AGNES (1994), Varda said that the conception of CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 was influenced by the painting DEATH AND THE MAIDEN by Hans Baldung Grien. I have searched for this painting on the internet, and found that there might be 3-4 paintings by Baldung Grien sharing the same title. I don’t know which one influenced Varda, or maybe the whole DEATH AND THE MAIDEN series of paintings influenced her.

    2. CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1961) is indirectly referenced in MY LIFE TO LIVE (1962, Jean-Luc Godard), because in MY LIFE TO LIVE, Nana (Anna Karina) said proudly that she once appeared in a film with Eddie Constantine. And both Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine appeared in CLEO FROM 5 TO 7. (I got to know this trivia from the book GODARD ON GODARD.)

  13. Was pretty inspired by what you wrote as I watched the film. Well I was supposed to have a discussion about this film in a film org at school but… Alas nobody came T___T so I thought of writing my thoughts down about this movie. Well here’s my two cents if you’re interested but I don’t think my writing is as good as yours. Just click on website for it :)

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