A Portrait Disguised as a Diary: On Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7

Cléo from 5 to 7 | Art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

It is the first day of summer 1962 in Paris, and it is a beautiful day, and for Cléo, everything is falling apart. She is a singer of some popularity, young and beautiful and therefore untouchable; she is also living in the anxious now-and-not-yet, awaiting a cancer diagnosis. Her future has been written in stone, but her present is written on water: it shifts and changes like the tides of foot traffic that swirl across the Parisian streets this early summer afternoon. Cléo’s lingering on the sidewalks of Paris are an invitation for the viewer to linger with her, to watch the crowd as it goes by, to spend time with her, and with the people she meets as she waits for the phone call.

The film is not usually categorized as a hangout movie, a name often reserved for languid films about students and stoners where conversations supersede all else. But the term, as defined by its originator Quentin Tarantino, describes Cléo from 5 to 7 beautifully: a movie watched, over and over again, “just to spend time with [the characters].” Cléo from 5 to 7 is, quite literally, about spending time with one character: running down the minute hands of the clock with Cléo as she traverses Paris, anxiously awaiting the results of the medical test that will tell her if she is sick.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of Agnes Varda’s better-known films; it represents Varda’s particular brand of feminist storytelling, standing out alongside her own documentaries and her French New Wave contemporaries as an exquisite experiment to push the bounds of what it is a film can do. As with the rest of Varda’s body of work, it is compassionate and honest in its portrayal and framing of its subjects—both the titular Cléo and the people she meets during her afternoon. Her camera concerns itself with the wants and desires of the figures in focus, making them subjects instead of objects, regardless of the length of time they spend on screen: old men in cafes have worries and cares, inner lives that go beyond their outward old age; young women posing nude for sculptures are given both bodies and souls, and afforded the same dignity and respect they would have received as if they were clothed. Her framing is playful—in one scene, musicians are eclipsed by their instruments, while kittens gambol in the background. All the while, unexpected quick cuts, skipping forward or back a few frames, betray the titular Cléo’s state of mind, demonstrating the stutter-stop of her attention, empathizing with her anxiety.

Though time in Cléo is unhurried, it is not lazy: the afternoon marches forward, minute by minute, each interval announcing itself by way of titles superimposed over the (in)action. The titles give only what little information we need to know—“Chapter VII, Cléo from 5:38 to 5:45 p.m.” The movie itself runs in nearly real time, lending the film a sense of immediacy. There is a comforting specificity to knowing the exact minute of the exact day of the exact year this story takes place in: most of what happens to Cléo could be the events of any lovely summer evening in any time and any place, but they are happening in Paris, in 1962, to a young woman who has found modest success as a singer but who fears that everything good that has happened to her will be uprooted before the end of the day. Cléo traverses Paris’ streets with the threat of a personal apocalypse hanging above her head.

Though the titles are themselves specific, the chapters touched off by them are imprecise; they appear a few minutes after Cléo arrives at a new location, or while speaking with a friend, or while she is walking down the street. The line between chapters is permeable, prone to slippage; there are no hard boundaries, only the minute hand running slowly through time toward a destination that Cléo both anticipates and dreads. Time unfeelingly marches on, minutes ticking ever closer to the film’s end. At the same time, time stands transfixed between the marks of each title card, permanently ingrained on film stock, hanging in the air as Cléo passes by.

Like Tarantino’s ur-example of the genre, Rio Bravo, Cléo from 5 to 7 has a plot that is unimportant; take the events of the film and jumble them out of order, and it will make precious little difference to the story. The film is a portrait, disguised as a diary. Diaries are necessarily linear—they must be read in order for them to make sense, requiring movement. Portraits invite the viewer to stop, to study, to spend some time looking for a while. What matters is Cléo’s state of mind, and her anxious attempts to distract herself from the test results waiting for her at the end of the afternoon: the way she turns her head when she catches sight of herself in the mirror, trying on hats; the way she listens for others’ comments about her music when it plays in public; her tears when she remembers her anxiety and fear; her laughter when she forgets herself completely. The name of the movie is not A Young Woman from 5 to 7 or Florence (Cléo’s given name) from 5 to 7: it is Cléo from 5 to 7. “Cléo” (a nickname, short for Cleopatra) captures the woman’s soul: beautiful, regal, charming and even flirtatious, with the weight of her own world on her shoulders. Cléo sees Cléo better than she sees herself, trapped as she is inside her own head. It loves her for her charm and good nature, and it is compassionate about her vanity and anxiety.


It is the first day of summer 1962 in Paris, and it is a beautiful day, and the entire city feels anxious with the question of war.

There are other dramas, too. There is, of course, Cléo’s own, which is broken up by other, smaller dramas: the verdict of a fortune teller who says she’s about to experience great change, the desire to buy a hat that’s out of season (and a disagreement with her assistant about whether she should wear the hat, and in doing so, invite bad fortune). She has a cool exchange with her lover, a warm exchange with a friend, a misunderstanding with the musicians she works with, a chance meeting in the park. Each one is a brush stroke in Cléo’s portrait, another angle that informs her precise state of mind. The small dramas give us an impression of Cléo’s larger drama far better than a streamlined story ever could. Alone, they are blocks of color floating suspended in space and time. Their separation from each other gives each incident a depth and completeness, apparently unrelated. Back away, and the picture resolves into a clear whole.

Whenever Cléo pauses to rest and to breathe, Varda does, too, allowing the eye of the camera to rove across the faces of the passers-by, each their own person, each carrying their own troubles. A female taxi driver tells Cléo of the night she was assaulted by youths. A couple breaks up one table over in a cafe. Two men discuss business nearby, oblivious to all else. A street magician, acting out the imagery of some bad dream, swallows frogs whole, one by one, then spits out water in an arcing sheet. A man is shot; Cléo sees the aftermath: an ambulance, a knot of bystanders, the bullet hole puncturing a window. In the late afternoon light, the window acts as a mirror, reflecting the faces of the gawking crowd. Cléo stands apart, her own reflection torn in two by the shattered glass. She lives in two worlds: the world of her own anxious anticipation, and the world of Paris on the brink of war with its own colony.

Cléo’s experience is one specificity out of thousands. Cléo’s pain is her own: she is not breaking up with a lover, she is not agonizing over business plans, she is not being murdered in the street. For Cléo, the anxiety over the war in Algeria is a passing thought, a nagging buzz. It is a distraction from her own, much more personal anxiety; for others, the conflict looms. News reports scream about unrest elsewhere in Paris, in the countryside, in Algeria. Soldiers and sailors cluster together in knots, preparing to ship out. Cléo meets one such soldier, about to leave himself. The two recognize each other as kindred spirits, dreading their futures, attuned to how beautiful Paris is in the summer in their shared present, and—more than most—how quickly it can all be taken away. 


It is the beginning of summer 2020, and it is a beautiful day, but it feels like everything is falling apart. The plots of our own lives have ground to a halt, and we, with bated breath, wait anxiously for medical test results, for rent to freeze, for stimulus and unemployment checks, for a vaccine to be developed, for an all-clear to be sounded someday, for relief.

A pandemic is not a blanket experience; my self-isolation is one specificity out of billions. Cléo from 5 to 7 cannot tell me anything about living through a global crisis: Cléo’s experience is worlds and lifetimes away from mine. Still, as I watch her traipsing the streets of Paris, I ache for her. Her nervous anticipation of her own future mirrors and underlines my own. Like Cléo at the scene of the crime, I am torn between two worlds: the world of Cléo, alive on the crowded streets of Paris, and the world of my couch, watching her. The world of the infinite present, and the world of the unknown future. Two worlds, two kindred anxieties. 

I want to reach through the screen, to tell her, in what little French I have, that I feel her pain and her fear, that I understand it. If past anxieties of my own are any indication, someday I won’t remember how this feels. But I’ll remember the motions I went through that colored my anxiety: tying on a mask, washing my knuckles raw, stepping aside on the sidewalk, commenting on how abnormal this all is. The feelings will go dark, forgotten, but the gestures and the people I performed them with will remain. Each person was themselves the subject of their own anxious portrait, even when I was too blind and too afraid to see it.


Cléo from 5 to 7 begins with an ending, so we will follow suit and end at Cléo’s beginning. Cléo’s story begins at 5 p.m.: the end of the workday, the end of the afternoon, the end of an appointment with a fortune teller. For a few seconds, as the fortune teller shuffles the cards and spreads them across the table, the camera takes on a bird’s eye view: straight down, in color film—contrasting with the rest of Cléo’s world, filmed in black and white and gentle gray. Here in color, in square framing and a “God’s eye view,” is the illusion of truth. Here in the cards, Cléo can seek out a story that will help her make sense of the world.

The final card Cléo pulls from the deck is Death: the thing she fears, the force from which she spends the rest of the day running away. The fortune teller tells her that the Death card does not always foreshadow the act of dying, but it does indicate change on the horizon: “A complete transformation of your entire being.” This story will change Cléo. She will never be the same. 

Cléo sees the fortune teller in an attempt to elucidate her future; I watch movies in an attempt to make sense of my present. I cannot control the future, nor can I divine it; it is a black box into which I cannot see. Like Cléo’s reflection in the shattered window, my present is fractured beyond all recognition and frozen inside itself. All I can do is guess, and on some days, make informed guesses. Cléo chose tarot, and then—to forget the specter of Death—wandered through Paris. I choose film, which allows me to travel back in time to the very same city, to try Cléo’s troubles in exchange for my own. Like the fortune teller piecing together a narrative from the cards Cléo draws, I can piece together a sense of peace by watching familiar scenes, spending time together with characters I know and love and understand. Cléo’s anxious mind frees me from my own. With her, I am not alone, and I remember that I was never alone in the first place.