Keepin’ It ‘Real-Time’ In ‘Cleo from 5-7′

Just when you thought Irvine was one of those hopelessly boring towns void of any cultural character, out comes Orange County’s sole cinematheque from your very own UC Irvine. It is a time of transformation for the familiar classroom environment of the Humanities Instructional Building. Patrons find that once a week during the school-year quarters, its stadium seating is truly put to good use.
This quarter the Film and Video Center (FVC) is directed and run by Professor Lauren Steimer from the Department of Film and Media Studies. For her, screenings held by the FVC act as an extension to the world outside the classroom not only for students, but for community members as well. The FVC screenings are often times singular events within the Orange County area and with some programs, the entire country.
Last week the FVC screened “Cléo de 5 à 7,” a film from 1962 by French director Agnès Varda whose focus on documentary realism in her films was clearly evident within the proposed fictive world of this particular film. The use of a “real-time” edited narrative is indicative of this film as we follow a single character through two hours of her life.
Cléo, played by actress Corinne Marchand, is a French pop icon we follow as she waits for medical test results. She fears the worst and allows her fears to overcome her, and her assumptions become proven realities in her mind, she turns to existential thought. In questioning what purpose she is living at this point, she has several encounters that propel her to take stock of her own existence.
Documenting her every move, the film includes long shots of the main character crossing the street. These are moments the audience is usually unaware of as most films cut from one side of the street to the next. Unless what happens in the middle of the street is essential to plot development, a long take of crossing a wide street is not going to embellish the narrative. This is Varda’s incorporation of real time into the narrative.
“Real time is rarely used in films because ‘real’ life is so very boring that it often becomes necessary to insert temporal ellipses between a character’s more interesting moments in order to make a story pleasurable,” Steimer said. “Varda worked with this premise in mind when she structured the narrative of this film around the mundane meanderings of a self-involved pop star.”
Revealing inner monologues allow us a peek into characters’ true intentions regarding their surrounding situations. In this we find the existential aesthetic of the French New Wave as well as during moments when Cléo’s surrounding world is externalized from inside cab rides. From things she passes by and the content heard from the cab radio, we see how Cléo responds to the world around her.
“As Varda was considered part of Left Bank film movement, which was decidedly more politically left, some say Cléo is a commentary on the female characters created by the French New Wave, stuck in exciting situations but essentially vacant human beings.” Steimer explained, “Others say that the character is a metaphor for the Paris itself, as self-absorbed, beautiful but vacant and awaiting the life-changing event that would happen a few years later.”
Returning for the spring quarter, the FVC will start off with Hitchcock, and will then delve into co-sponsoring the Latin-American Film Festival. The bulk of the FVC’s programming, however, will focus on films stemming from the ideals surrounding the French student rebellions in May 1968. The moment of that “life-changing event” has inspired the “French Cinema of the 1960s” and the “New Hollywood” series set for next quarter.