Cléo From 5 To 7 (DVD)
Writer-director Agnès Varda is seldom mentioned among the first-rank French New Wave directors for any number of reasons: Her career both precedes and postdates the New Wave, she married the decidedly non-New Wave director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg), and her films are overtly concerned with feminist issues usually neglected by other New Wavers. But though her work as a whole may not fit neatly into the definition, Cléo From 5 To 7, newly reissued on DVD, is clearly one of the movement's key films. Made under the obvious influence of Jean-Luc Godard (who shows up alongside Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in a film-within-the-film parody of silent comedies), Cléo uses 90 minutes to capture two hours in the life of a vain pop singer (Corinne Marchand) awaiting the possibly grim results of a medical test. Using the off-the-cuff artfulness of early New Wave efforts and voiceovers from Marchand and those close to her, including a composer played by Michel Legrand, Varda captures the intensity of the brutal wait. In the face of death, Marchand experiences the mundane details of a day in Parisoverheard conversations, the absurdly numerous superstitions of her shopping companion, reports from the conflict in Algeriawith a heightened reality, eventually reaching a revelation about her life after befriending a war-bound soldier with no notion of who she is. An almost literal slice of life, as its title suggests, Cléo allows Varda to illustrate beautifully the lost world surrounding those too stuck in their own headsand, more pointedly, too caught up in the role-playing expected of women. Beginning the film as a frail creature singing songs as passionless as her nominal love affair, Marchand leaves it quite differently. Though reprising some of the same themes, much of the optimism (and the influence of the New Wave) has vanished by the time of 1985's Vagabond, a masterful portrayal of a lost life. Opening with the discovery of a female drifter's frozen corpse, the film flashes back to her final days. Though brilliantly played by Sandrine Bonnaire, the film is as much about the effect the drifter has on those who encountered her, among them a Tunisian migrant worker, a small-time thief, and a professor of botany. Alternating between flashbacks and interview footage, Varda reveals the defiantly independent Bonnaire as an object of pity, contempt, desire, jealousy, and easily forgotten maternal protectiveness, a reflection of her acquaintances' lust, prejudice, and unacknowledged self-interest. Driven to define herself only by what she's notrestricted, deferentialBonnaire becomes a victim of her own unwillingness to conform. It's a tragedy from a usually unseen corner of the world and, like Cléo, a brilliant example of Varda's ability to get at places usually left unacknowledged, misunderstood, and ignored.