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Framing Cleo In Paris

November 10, 2010 | By

Cleo is not an outsider but recognized as an essential part of the city.

Framing Of Cleo

Representation of female subjectivity in connection to city in European cinema

City primarily emerged as a site of plural world-views for modernist literary figures, in twentieth century literature, exploring ideas of alienation, memory, uncanny, disintegration, hollowness and fragmentation representing modern man’s predicament. The search for radical and innovative form gave rise to experimental style and technique of writing culminating in works like that of Samuel Beckett, declaring, “Form is content and content is form.” Somewhat in a similar fashion, cataclysmic upheaval of culture, had gradually given way to the transition in cinematic form in French cinema during 1960s, thereby perceiving city as an essential part of mis-en-scene. Whether it was horror and hollowness of modern man speculated in Resnais Hiroshima mon amour or loveless space personified in Alphaville, a colonial space of a child’s psyche in Truffaut’s 400 Blows or a sheer domain of primal fear in Breathless and Viva sa Vie, the conflicting image of city is evident. To have inherited a new means of representation in comprehending modern city was inevitable, but by the use of peculiar imagination, Agnes Varda extended the limits of a tangible frame.

The representation of female subjectivity in connection to city in European cinema faced a similar dilemma that modernist literature had gone through until nineteenth century. With women’s engagement with city seen either as a discourse of danger or desire, it was only an accessible image of prostitute that could possibly inquire the urban space. In Varda’s film, however, we see an attempt been made to subvert the idea of both ‘pleasure’ and ‘repulsion’, by perpetuating city as an idea that initially seems to be saturated in specific cultural reality but later transmutes into universe, restoring purpose of protagonist’s existence. This idea is intensified by appropriating the image of flaneur, in her protagonist, experiencing time in the streets of Paris, image which was reserved for male figure in the European cinema.

The film, Cleo de 5 to 7, takes us beyond the mundane experiences in the city with the sense of sublime and intimate, deeply grounded in construction of the images in the narrative. What might occur to us a document of the period at first glance is actually a philosophic inquiry into technology change and consumerism along with cultural shifts and the rising political debates, manifested in the power of images, making her work distinctly pervasive. Arguably, the article suggest that while constructing image of the city, Paris, Varda not only appropriates several cinematic ideas circulated among practitioners in different strands of cinema during her phase, but negotiates with ambiguities of other visual forms such as painting and photography at crucial instances to construct a cinematic discourse in the era dominated by the likes of filmmakers such as Godard and Truffaut.

Framing of Cleo

In an understanding of female voice in a capitalistic society

In an understanding of female voice in a capitalistic society, Cleo de 5 to 7 readily serves as a part of our search for ways of building connections between gender relations in the context of social structures of authority within specific cultural fields, recognizing subcultures in the metropolis. The conventional possibilities of cinematic associations to position her protagonist in the context of city are transgressed, achieving city as a metaphor. It is followed that Varda purposively engages with a narrative form in this film, adequately characteristic of ideas that perpetuated intellectual movements of the period.

The city, in narrative, becomes an instance to reveal interplay between social relations, material forms and the subjective position. In a wider process of achieving subjective position in a spatial reality at multiple levels, several constructions of image formation takes place, most importantly that of creating reader’s perception. The article highlights identity exercised in apparatuses of modern social reality, an investigation of an individual seeking meaning in the purposelessness and locating her role in cosmos. In this context, the film not only reveals urban experiences that shape an individual’s perspective but how these spaces further bring an expression of an identity into play, thereby achieving a symbolic significance.

Framing Of Cleo

Encompassing her existence, an inward journey

To achieve this, the narrative of the film articulates the search of her protagonist into a conflicting world, encompassing her existence, an inward journey, framed through means of cinematic representation and strategies of aesthetics. Consequently, the film engages in a complex dialogue with the modern city that constantly authenticates her subject by fiddling with the images of displacement in temporal spatial frame. It is her ‘self’ that both city and protagonist fear to lose and so Varda searches for a form that would substantiate the displacement and anxiety in both her subjects- Cleo and Paris. With a conviction to seek a new self, a conscious vocabulary of camera movements and editing constitute part of such cinematic representation which in turn interrogates a plethora of ideas on ‘body’, ‘performance’ and ‘spectacle’ further locating urban space in perspective.

Varda fervently chose her protagonist, a young Parisian pop singer, Cleo, remotely perceived to be marginal or troubled at first glance. A growing celebrity, diverge from mundane, she paradoxically, cannot escape ordinariness. The narrative is structured on such paradoxes, woven in temporal and spatial domain. City soon appears as a routine make up of her unrealized self where an effortless voyage in order of things is sought. Certainly, Cleo is seen to be immersed in a city as if it is a natural landscape. The visual pattern gains comprehensive view with further contradictions. Cleo, submerged in imagery of consumer society, is seen like this, until this contradiction is resolved, restoring natural imagery as the essential aspect of Cleo’s destiny. In the climatic sequence, she lands in the Park Monstsouris and is reminded of beautiful flora and fauna surrounding city that often escapes commoner’s eye by her newly found friend, a soldier. The comfort in the organic space allows us to know Cleo as Florence. ( Her real name).

Framing Of Cleo

A young Parisian pop singer

In two hours, (literally 90 minutes), she awaits the results of her medical test for cancer, which appear as a desire to know the ‘truth’ and ‘self’. She had to go through the process of knowledge. The temporal axis of two hours, sweep the narrative of the film like an extended space itself.

Moreover, the first episode in the film where Cleo meets the tarot card reader establishes the point that the notion of time and space are interchangeable at one level. Cleo’s future foretold is nothing but narrative of the film contracted in a prophecy or an inquiry per se, evoking conflict between nature/destiny and culture/ individual that runs parallel to this spatial and temporal grid.

This interchangeability of time and spatial trajectories suggest how image of city is built on an anticipation of timeline, figuratively as well as literally. Further, the focus on the plausible shifts in the spaces is enhanced with a disrupted narrative; small journeys are structured in time slots and random spatial markers in a mortal world. The continuous narrative is embedded with discontinuous images, suggesting arbitrariness.

Such continuous flow of spaces in the passage of time in narrative of Post world war cinema has been observed:

The rise of situations to which one can no longer react, of environments with which there are now only chance relations, of empty or disconnected any-space-whatever’s replacing qualified extended space. It is here that situations no longer extend into action or reaction in accordance with the requirements of the movement-image. These are pure optical and sound situations, in which the character does not know how to respond, abandoned spaces in which he ceases to experience and to act so that he enters into a flight, goes on a trip, comes and goes, vaguely indifferent to what happens to him, undecided as to what must be done. (Deleuze, 1989: 272)

Truly, from the beginning, it is implied that sensory knowledge of the city could be a substitute in lack of rational representation, further emphasized with the everyday movement of the protagonist Cleo vis-à-vis positioning of camera adopted in the film. By juxtaposing long shots with mid shots and a deliberate attempt to maintain physical distance with the camera, Cleo is meant to be alienated from spectator as a fixed image. In the fluidity of time and space she too is in a flux, in transition and this fluidity in her character is approached by often decentring her in the frame. Her mobility, a casual walk or a ride in her friend’s car, charged with accelerated situations, transcends the ordinary and ensures Cleo’s awareness. Unlike Nana of vivre sa vie, thrown into the city and destroyed by it, Cleo is not an outsider but recognized as an essential part of the city. Nana too moves in a city and towards her awareness; culminating in her death. Her character engages with city as geography of ‘danger’, ‘fear’ and ‘unknown’, while Cleo sustains the urban landscape. We do not know whether she conquers the destiny or not, but she is not necessarily destroyed.

The volatile quality of time and space is kept in conjunction with the compulsive way of filming cityscape. The movement of the protagonist along with other characters is woven in the logic of this volatile quality, naturalizing it through a carefully designated style of camera movement keeping spaces in horizontal frame rather than vertical like those of seen profoundly fore grounded in Antonionini’s films. In several instances, in the market place and sequences of traveling in a motor vehicle, specifically the climatic ride on cab in a city, Cleo’s perspective and continuity of the time, framed with over- the- shoulder camera shots fulfill requirements of this invisible style giving texture to fluidity and contributes in perceiving a crucial aspect of the form that Varda aspires.

The frenzied mobility in the text is contradicted with the temperament of other visual art forms like that of painting and still photography. Unlike several other new wave films, city emerges as a painting of self-portraits of protagonist, Cleo. Several motifs, of color, shapes and objects, psychologically and physically, coalesce the construction of city in the narrative as a natural landscape. Varda conceive images in mis-en-scene that are to reveal unknown to her protagonist, Cleo. I will maintain the suggestion that Varda consistently sees city as a part of intangible nature that can only be known in partial; a quality inherent in painting and a fulfillment sought in photography, consistently trying to realize the ‘latent’ in the ‘obvious’.

Introduced at a mysterious centre of life, tarot card reader’s place, Cleo is revealed as an individual whose existence is for her own sake. An apt place, beyond all the logical constructs of society, serves as a metaphor for this individual to open into city, an experience into nature, and becoming an inevitable part of it. Where city is nature, she is a chosen object of photographer, focused and seen as a whole world for a moment by spectator.

Cleo, a sensuous image is immediately located as an object of gaze in her cosmos, Paris. Filming her in extreme close up thrice, anticipates gaze in the space she is going to intrude. With a look in mirrors placed at staircase, she declares, ‘Ugliness is a kind of death’. She continues, ‘As far as I am beautiful, I ‘m alive.’ Identified as a person with a bleak perspective of life around her, she is yet to discover polarities in the cycle of life and death, allegorically depicted as journeying in the city.

Framing Of Cleo5

Not a simplistic instance of gaze, but a reaffirmation of Cleo’s existence

Her entrance in the market place, a public space of city is not a simplistic instance of gaze, but a reaffirmation of Cleo’s existence in relation to others. Knowing self requires a quest of experience in infinite domain of contradictions.

In a canvas of city, inter relationships among perspectives remind us of cubist elements in painting. Spaces in the city-hat showroom, sculpture studio, theater, and cafe – operate as a nexus of images of beauty, desire, body, spectacle and performance–structured in a parodic fashion at times, questioning possibilities. The film starring Godard and Karina expressively interrogates the very notion of ‘perspective’, while it serves as a spectacle for Cleo. Such visual nuances embedded in the scheme of things, apprehend modern city in much more complex ways. In addition, the dyad of beauty and ugliness does not merely dictate logic of sexual dominance in Cleo and in spaces of urban reality; it is a contradiction that Varda dwells on for Cleo’s self-exploration.

On a physical plane, frame offers a play with a round of recognition and identification with spectator vis-a-vis her protagonist. A modern city like that of Paris where cultural freedom to woman is not denied, public space in city is not free of sexual dominance. Changing position of camera, Cleo’s mid shots to people’s gaze along with slow moving track shots and at other times her long shots with jump cuts in between- the camera convey repulsive aspect of city vis-à-vis Cleo’s mind clouded with anxieties. By distanciating Cleo physically from spectator, Varda not only dislocates her spectator from the subject but also from the temporal frame. Moreover, she sees herself through others’ gaze and that is the only identification she carries until she is aware of her situation.

This constant negotiation between Cleo’s position and the outer world –cityscape is a recurring pattern in the film. A rigorous mobility between Interior and exterior spaces of the city, provides a compelling gesture to the narrative. Cleo’s presence in the lavish hat showroom inquires fetish space of female psyche before transition is to take place. In presence of the maze of mirrors, Cleo exhibits her persona, narcissism. Camera consistently captures fleeting images of the city in the mirrors along with her close ups, bringing Cleo’s experience of space in perspective. Camera further follows Cleo, extending the idea of gendered subjectivity being played upon. Once again spectator is induced with this strategic quality of camera, rendering layers of identification. The hunt for hat halts at her statement when she tries a peculiar hat and utters, ‘black becomes me’ only to discard it later.

Sooner Cleo’s experience in this organic structure is arrested within shifts in spaces. Mental and spatial trajectories merge to unfold the plot. Indoor space, her apartment is charged with violence and aggression, of female sexuality. But, Varda appropriates this indoor space for mental freedom. While there is no attempt to control narrative events, Cleo moves towards a choice. While she rehearses the song, ‘Sans toi’, Varda decides to reveal this moment of transition visually where change emerges from inside outward. In conjunction with the words that she utter, she is framed against black background and appears to transcend time and space, almost acquiring an image of a performer on stage among real audience. The sequence ends in a zoom out, establishing the distinction between spaces-real and imaginary. Change is immediately realised. Rejecting her existing position, she addresses her manager, “you will make me puppet”, she continues, ‘you’re exploiting me”. Her realisation disrupts the space, she opts to go out. ‘Out’ is a spatial trajectory that can sustain transition.

In relation to this, city materializes the sustainability of the female position. With her need to walk alone on the streets of Paris, this time without any company, she sees herself again in the glass and declares,’ My unchanging doll’s face…this ridiculous hat…I can’t see my own fears…I thought everyone looked at me…I only look at myself”.

In her eternal scenery, city now appears as a community, a collective state of different groups, where in it opens into a functional space. In the course of expanding scope of Cleo’s realisation, public spaces of intellectual vigour and inquiry render suggestions of cultural change, a transformation taking place in the years of 1960s.

Varda’s grappling with the protagonist’s divided self, predicted by tarot card reader, is made visible with the intervention of filming style, finding a route for urban imaginings. This intervention is clearly seen in her visit to the second cafe, Cafe du dome, where she enters in a discourse with this peculiar space, necessitating observation. Camera, now, instantly acquires point of view position, substantiating contingent view of the world through Cleo’s eyes. The gaze apparatus is subverted, acting as an attribute to the functionality of space, and identifying the change in subject’s position. Thus, shift in various kinds of look seem to bring transition in perspective. In this context, Laura Mulvey states:

It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, striptease, theater, shows, etc. 

At one level, much of this seems to resonate with Godard’s work, especially Breathless and Vivre sa vie: the focus on individual perspective and engagement with modern city and so on. And peculiarly, this spectatorial attribute of camera that became a potential strategy in French new wave cinema to represent protagonist’s world view amidst city life. Interestingly, Varda do not attach much importance to retain Cleo only as an observer on whom existence of the things in this nature depend. She would rather choose her to invade and subsequently merge with nature, in all oneness. The last episode in city, traveling in bus, explicates the idea.

The lack of verbal enunciation, in Cleo de 5 to 7, at times invites criticism of the film. The fact is that Varda here logically maintains a low impulse on arguments and also avoid the use of even much popular tool, voice over narration used extensively during French new wave. Her filmic structure is rather charged with contemplation, wherein constructing visual imagery of the city becomes inherent part of it. While Cleo enters the café, she puts on sun-glasses, distanciating from the world, thus looking outside inward, a functional quality of photography that lends Varda’s character to enunciate a new outlook, or revisiting the past. “After all these years, here I am back in this café, she mumbles.” Later her disengagement with any of the conversations at café, unlike much talked about café sequence in Vivre Sa Vie, where Anna karina involves in dialogue with a philosopher Brice Parain, renders spectatorial position to Cleo vis-à-vis space through an exceedingly descriptive manner that divides the space into intellectual vigor charged with discussions on politics, art and culture and recreation as well. The two aspects of the café as a public space are visually explored by the filmmaker, marked with the presence of commoners and intellectuals, suggesting, as I have earlier pointed out, city as a community, encompassing all walks of life.

Iconography eases the use of voice- over- narration at several instances in the film, mapping city with various angles, placing the protagonist off-center. In a peculiar scene, after leaving café, Cleo’s spectatorship gains a provocative visual dimension and reveals superimposition of physical and mental images, while she walks on the streets, a series of montage images- her female assistant, her manager, her monkey watch, her lover, her blonde wig- emerge in mis-en-scene. In an admirable artistic control, Varda manages to amalgamate ‘mis-en-scene’ and ‘montage’, the two major dialectical forms of cinema seen as opposites, while depicting city as a space of her protagonist’s mind. Without bringing an agitated face of Cleo on screen, reader’s perception of her as a thinking person is chiseled out. Referring to earlier argument on the use of cubist elements, use of montage can be read as a cinematic intervention into notion of multi perspectives. Apparently, the mobility of Cleo is contrasted with the insertion of still images, playing with the nuances of time and space.

In a continuation to reveal city as an elemental part of nature and human evolution, the narrative also hints at primitive and ghory rituals as an essential part of modern human imagination and pleasure. Eating frogs in a routine street-show not only confirms the fear of Cleo but also takes a brief leap into a familiarity of the uncivilized past. Getting nauseous after noticing African masks at city showrooms from cab and followed by art students with painted faces connects the same idea of looking human imagination from an unchanging perspective. This certainly makes Varda’s inquiry into understanding modernity in a much more complex way than some of her contemporaries who would completely disconnect modern era from genealogy of human thought process and imagination.

In rendering her narrative a graphic compulsion, I maintain that Varda’s depiction of city is dual in character-repressive and reassuring as well. Restoration is sought in romanticism, metaphorically inscribed in the soldier’s meeting with Cleo, also providing relational aspect of existence. Comfort is permissible in the world of memories, if not dreams. It is only in this realm that Cleo’s image is clearly defined. Her fear is submitted. She acknowledges the amazement at little things around her. She says, “Today everything amazes me. The people’s faces next to mine….” And thus becomes part of others, the city, and the natural landscape.

It is within the realm of such ideas that I have attempted to look into the construction of the image of a city, Paris through a form that spoke of new experiments at a crucial historical juncture of cinema. Not only the film decides to meet challenges of defining modern city in the transitory period of social change but it brings in filmmakers’ perception of understanding movement and statis as paired components of the city. Where on the one hand, mobility is both a literal and metaphorical aspect of knowing self; statis is none the less action in itself. In all its visual ambiguities, Varda constantly shifts from painting like attributes to photographic elements, from theatre like aspects to documentary features, submitting her city to plural artistic ventures. In its ethereal figure, city holds back our protagonist and protects her from incurable damage, cancer. The films’ central ambiguity, by and large remains that of a choice which central character and as well as filmmaker have to make-to choose between oblivious and awareness. This dichotomy of form is exercised through character’s own perplexity which is captured in a chronicle of two hours of her life. She discredits her existing system of living repetitively in the text and wanders in a time zone, only to become fearless. It is intriguing to read, how Varda has been grappling with the image of ‘wanderer’ in female identity vis-à-vis space for years. In between time frame of twenty three years, song, ‘sans toi, sung by Cleo in this film to her later film, Sans Toit Ni Loi, (Vagabond), the image of wanderer in and out of city, lingers on.

 

References

[1] DELEUZE, GILLES, Cinema 2: The Time Image, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005

[2] MULVEY, LAURA, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”, Visual and other pleasures, Macmillan, 1989

(Pictures used in this article are taken from the Internet)

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Ravneet Kaur is an assistant professor in English Department, Deshbandhu College, Delhi University. She is pursuing her PhD in film studies. Her interests include photography and travelling
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