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Essay

Agnès Varda (1962)

ASKING MYSELF ABOUT A FILM that helps us live better, I am immediately awash in a reel of images of the great films, art, novels, and plays that have changed me: art that has cracked my heart open, made me see the world anew or from another perspective, that has shed a light on my limitations, my naiveté, my singular point of view, and left me different, eyes wider, more aware of my limitations, more aware period.

It’s an impossible choice, but I gravitate toward Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, both for its individual merit and as an entrée into Varda’s body of work. There are few directors with an eye as incisive, or a filmography so extensive. In my own work as a director, I find myself referring back to her over and over as a living example of how to keep working, seeking, exploring, and regarding the world—often with a twinkle of wit.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is remarkable on many fronts. Technically Varda has great
energy and joy, playfully dashing the camera from one character to the next, timing the turn in a conversation from light to morbid as a car turns into a darkened tunnel, jump cutting to say “look-look-look again.” Her mastery of craft and willingness to defy convention are always on display, but what stands out most is her gaze. In a film very much about the female gaze, (not only Cléo’s gazing upon herself, but those gazing at her) Varda will stop the action to construct vérité sequences of real people on the streets, holding close-ups on faces ravaged by time, inviting us to gaze, study, consider. Perhaps these moments are Cléo’s critical study of the effect of time on human flesh and the inevitable decline of beauty. But through Varda’s eyes, these same faces become a celebration of life.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is a film told in real time, about time, and watching it now takes one back to another time when films took their time. This tongue twister of a conceit is a joy to unpack. By today’s standards, the film’s pacing is slow and deliberate, yet it still seems cutting-edge in its use of camera and editing. The film also explores how the passing of time is subjective. And it explores the consequence of time. On a superficial level, the story is about a beautiful, self-absorbed singer awaiting medical test results, afraid she may be mortally ill. Varda reminds us of the political backdrop with news reports on the Algerian war playing in the background, also further highlighting Cléo’s self-absorption. We spend an hour and a half with her as she travels from premonition of death to a diagnosis which is not what she expects. In the course of those ninety minutes she changes on a profound level, and here is where I feel the film helps me live better. Cléo’s gaze shifts from herself to the world, and as she learns to care less what the world thinks of her, she is liberated from fear. I cherish this message as a gift from Agnès Varda.

As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that my innocence or naiveté has layers like an onion. With each new exposure to an incomprehensible human behavior—whether through art, media, or firsthand experience—a layer of innocence is peeled away. While I feel the importance of knowledge and fiercely put myself into the world, the ripping away of each layer temporarily stuns me, leaves me raw and heartbroken. There are horrors out there I could wish never to have seen—but once you see, you cannot unsee. Emulating Varda, I forge ahead, into life, eyes and heart wide open, in hopes of one day becoming the shiny orb that lies at the center of the onion, at once impenetrable and devourable, full of knowledge and wisdom. As an artist, my goal is to open the eyes and minds of viewers in the way mine have been by the artists I admire.

 

Nicole Kassell is an award-winning film and television director. Her first feature was The Woodsman, and she has directed episodes of American Crime, The Leftovers, Vinyl, The Americans, Better Call Saul, The Killing, and Rectify.


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