I’m frightened by other people’s fears.
I’ve been more in touch with mortality right now than perhaps ever before. Regularly thinking about my life and the lives of others, it is a prospect that has crept inside me and made itself at home. In life, of course, I’ve considered it at great length. Grieving the loss of a loved one gets me thinking about it. But for what feels like the first time, the universe, too, is mourning and acknowledging this collective loss of life as we know it. One way or another, we’re all encountering mortality directly.
In a final moment on screen, Cléo and Antonie walk side by side in a black and white frame, in a final scene of contentment and grins from left to right. On cue, the two turn to each other, and the screen blackens. I sat in my white chair, gazing out the window above my desk. Keeping my mouth open to taste the salt of the tears rolling down my cheeks, I couldn’t find the right words to articulate what I was feeling. So I wrote a note on my phone speaking to the only thought running through my overwhelmed mind: “Cléo from 5 to 7—greatest film ever made.”
French new-wave heroine Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7 follows Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a pop singer, for 90 minutes of her day. Cléo deals with the anxiety of waiting for test results that could confirm stomach cancer. After visiting a tarot card reader and pulling the hanged man card, indicating a possible illness, the viewer watches Cléo go about her day. She goes to a hat store, the Parc Montsouris, a movie, and even a café playing her music on its jukebox. Eventually meeting the soldier Antonie at the Parc Montsouris, this idea of facing impermanence is all too familiar to Cléo.
“The greatest film ever made” might have been a daring statement. Part of me wanted my adoration immediately out of my system and figured this was my best course of action. But another part of me recognized how close to home Cléo hit. I look back at this note now and I remember exactly why that was my initial response. Having rewatched and reflected again and again, I realize that I instantly saw a newfound purpose in myself as an artist.
About two years ago, I had a photography professor who distinguished between taking a photo and creating an image. Those words resonated with me profoundly—so much so that it was the basis of my college essay. I’d always assumed I created with meaning, but never actively thought about my process as a photographer. About twenty minutes after that day’s class let out, I urgently texted my mother about what I had learned. I was so instantly impacted by his words that I couldn’t keep it to myself. She responded so perfectly to me, saying the impression it left on me was definitely a sign that I would adopt this philosophy of creating. She was right. To this day, it affects me; I see more of a significance in my intentions to create a moment I can immortalize. Even in more artistically driven shoots, this idea lingers in my head. But my professor’s words extend far beyond photography as a medium and are part of an outlook on my life. When I finished Cléo, I saw a similar kind of approach from Vardà. Before pursuing filmmaking, Vardà studied photography and sought out a career in the field for many years. She saw a dynamic relationship between filmmaking and photography, and often referred to her photography for inspiration. Perhaps her photo background is what got me to see this similar purpose in myself. Apart from shared artistic undertakings, I see an obvious similarity in my professor and Vardà: they both see the importance of capturing their surroundings and everyday life, and implore others to do the same.
As a protagonist, Cléo is astonishingly identifiable in myriad ways. She feels uncelebrated by the public for her music. Her lover barely bats an eye at her. But what’s so memorable for me is how lonely she feels in her apprehensions about her life changing. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” Vardà employs a realist lens, capturing Cléo in her ordinary instant, while this terrifying possibility of illness remains ever-present. The platitude “live each day as though it were your last” is deliberately absent—if this were Cléo’s last day, it wouldn’t appear that she was living it to the fullest. Cléo continuously wears this façade of normalcy, when deep down, she is afraid and insecure about death—and even more so, her femininity, something us women know a little too well.
“Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m more alive than others.” One of Cléo’s first declarations after seeing the fortune teller encapsulates how others see her, and ultimately how she’s come to view herself. Not only does she see herself as beautiful, but there exists the expectation that people should marvel at her allure. Her initial impression of death is pretty much molded by society’s opinions about her physical presentation, conceivably alluding to her attitude toward all facets of her life. In thinking about my womanhood, I realize that even now, as a young woman, I still feel the burden on my shoulders to be this appealing. Coming of age with Instagram as a display of life and attractiveness adds another load on us, and living up to standards becomes arduous and results in a dwindling self-confidence. In 1962, this still somehow was the case for young women like Cléo. But her vulnerability and elegance add to her relatability, and for me, it makes her seem more human.
What makes Cléo from 5 to 7 feel the most familiar to me is how she evolves to greet her mortality. With about 30 minutes of the film remaining, she runs into Antonie. Cléo asks about the war in Algeria, and he responds, feeling as though soldiers are dying for nothing. Antonie unexpectedly reaches Cléo in a nonsexual but rather philosophical way—a way in which she hardly speaks with men. She opens up and tackles the matter of death so brutally. She and Antonie rush to the hospital to find her doctor, ready to come to terms with the possibilities of her test results. It turns out the doctor isn’t there, but Cléo is tenacious and continues to wait. Right here, in these moments, I am most touched. Cléo is meeting mortality with the firmest handshake, ready for all that comes next. What I felt in that first viewing and feel right now is an internal shift, an awakening I didn’t know I was seeking. How often is it that we’re able to come face to face with our life in an utterly full-circle experience? When we do, as Cléo teaches us, we befriend it. The fear, still staying, starts drifting off a bit. In a way, we’re a little freer.
Films are one of my greatest loves. They have the tremendous power to move viewers to laughter, tears, and fulfillment, all while being intensely beautiful and poignant. What makes a film all those things is often subjective. Cléo will always be the film that inspired me time and again. The film that searched inside me and unearthed feelings of uncertainty about existence. The film that got me back into creating art. The film that consoled me and restored my feminine identity. As Cléo herself mentions to Antonie when confronting her impending results, “My fear seems to be gone. I feel happy.” And she is—the film ends with a smile so genuine I can only smile back at the screen too.
By Colette Bernheim