Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962): Agnes Varda’s Seminal New Wave Feature

Agnès Varda wrote and directed Cléo from 5 to 7 (French: Cléo de 5 à 7), a seminal work of the French New Wave, recognized in France, but for decades was underappreciated internationally.

Grade: A- (****1/2 out of *****)

Original Poster to the 1962 Left Bank film Cléo from 5 to 7.jpg

Original poster

The story, which is highly original, starts with a young singer named Florence “Cléo” Victoire, at 5pm on June 21, as she eagerly waits for 90 minutes (until 6:30pm) to get the results of a medical test, anticipating a diagnosis of cancer.

The existential film includes themes of mortality, despair, and ultimately, the importance of  leading a joyous and meaningful life–while it lasts.

Bearing a strong female (and for some feminist) viewpoint, it also raises questions about how women are perceived by men, and perceive themselves, in France and other societies.

Visually, Varda uses mirrors quite frequently in order to symbolize Cleo’s obsession with her physical looks and the image she projects to herself and to others.

The film is noted by cameo appearance of French icons Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine and Jean-Claude Brialy as characters in the silent film that Raoul is showing Cléo and Dorothée.

Composer Michel Legrand, who wrote the film’s score, plays “Bob the pianist”.

World-premiering at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, Cleo from 5 to 7 immediately established Varda as a major figure of the New Wave.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

The film’s running time parallels the length of the story (90 minutes), even though its title, Cleo from 5 to 7, suggests two hours.

In the first scene, Cléo Victoire is having a tarot card reading with a fortune teller, who warns her of an evil force in her life, a doctor. She also sees a meeting with a talkative young man in her future. The fortune teller then pulls the hanged man card, meaning that Cléo is potentially fatally ill. She then proceeds to pull the death tarot card, leading Cléo to believe she is doomed.

Distraught from her visit, Cléo meets her maid, Angèle, at a café and recounts the results of the tarot card reading, claiming that if it’s cancer, she’ll kill herself. Cléo cries and the owner of the café gives her coffee to calm down. Cléo and Angèle proceed to go hat shopping, where Cléo buys a black fur hat, despite Angèle constantly reminding her that it’s summertime. Cléo wants to wear the hat home, but Angèle reminds her that it’s Tuesday, and it’s bad luck to wear something new on a Tuesday. They have the shopkeeper send the hat to Cléo’s home, and Cléo and Angèle take a taxi home in time for Cléo’s rehearsal. They have a conversation with the female taxi driver as she muses about the dangers of her job.

On the ride home, one of Cléo’s songs plays, and they listen to the radio, discussing current news including the Algerian War. Towards the end of the taxi ride, Cléo grows nauseous and attributes it to her illness. Upon returning home, Cléo cannot breathe, and Angèle tells her to do some exercise. Before Cléo’s lover, the man who the fortune teller mentioned earlier, enters the building, Angèle tells Cléo not to tell him that she’s ill, because men “hate weakness”. Her lover, a very busy man, tells her that he only has time to stop by for a kiss and that he’ll be able to take her on vacation soon. Cléo tells him that she’s ill, but he doesn’t take her seriously.

Once Cléo’s lover leaves, Bob, a pianist, and Maurice, a writer, arrive at her home for her rehearsal. Bob and Maurice pretend to be doctors once Angèle tells them that Cléo is ill, because “all women like a good joke.” However, Cléo does not find their joke funny. Bob goes to the piano, and they begin to practice some of Cléo’s songs. As they practice, Cléo’s mood quickly darkens after singing the song “Sans Toi.” Cléo feels like all people do is exploit her and that it won’t be long until she’s just a puppet for the music industry. Saying that everyone spoils her but no one loves her, Cléo leaves everyone behind in her home.

On the way to a café, Cléo passes a street performer swallowing frogs and spitting them back out on a huge wave of water. She plays one of her songs at a jukebox in the café and is upset when no one seems to notice the music playing in the background. Instead of remaining at the café, Cléo goes to a sculpting studio to visit her old friend, Dorothée, who is modelling nude for an artist. Once she’s finished, Dorothée claims that her body makes her happy, not proud, and Dorothée drives Cléo to her home. Cléo tells her friend that she is dying of cancer. Dorothée returns the car to her lover, a projectionist, and they watch a silent movie, starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina from the projection booth, which jokingly shows a woman dying. Leaving the cinema, Cléo accidentally breaks a mirror, which she claims is a bad omen. Cléo and Dorothée then take a taxi, and pass the café that Cléo visited, seeing a man was killed there. Dorothée tells her that the broken mirror was meant for that man, not Cléo.

Having dropped Dorothée off at her apartment, Cléo has the taxi take her to Parc Montsouris. By a bridge on a river, Cléo meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. Antoine helps Cléo realize her selfishness, and asks her to accompany him to the train station to return to the war if he accompanies her to the hospital to get her test results.

Before leaving, Antoine confides in Cléo about his thoughts on the war, and that in Algeria, they die for nothing, and that scares him. Antoine and Cléo go to the hospital by bus, and the doctor who tested Cléo for her possible cancer isn’t in, despite the fact that he told her he’d be present at 7 pm that day. Cléo and Antoine sit on a bench outside, as Cléo is still determined that the doctor will be there. While Cléo has come to terms with her illness and is able to face the test results with courage thanks to Antoine’s help, the doctor rolls by in his car and tells Cléo that she has cancer and will need to undergo radiotherapy.

Cléo says her fear is gone, and she seems happy, while Antoine starts crying. She assures him they have plenty of time together before he returns to Algeria.

For the first time in the interminable 90 minutes, Cléo seems genuinely happy and optimistic about her future.

Critical Status:

A highlight of the French New Wave that encapsulates the appeal of the era while departing from its narrative conventions.

In 2019, when the BBC polled 368 film experts from 84 countries to name the 100 greatest female-directed movies, Cleo from 5 to 7 was voted the second greatest film directed by a woman.


Original Poster to the 1962 Left Bank film Cléo from 5 to 7.jpg

Original poster

Socio-Political Context

While the film takes place in France, the influence of the Algerian war for independence is strong. The war greatly affected France during the 1950s and 1960s, where the demands for decolonization were the strongest. The soldier Cléo meets, Antoine, is on leave from Algeria. Antoine claims that the people in Algeria are dying for nothing. There are also protests on the streets witnessed by Cleo while she is in the taxi.

Upon meeting Antoine, the soldier talks about the deaths of the Algerian War, and that they are dying for nothing and without a purpose, further appealing to the existential philosophy.

Gender and Feminism

Cléo from 5 to 7 depicts male stereotypical treatment of  women, leading ti their sense of alienation and oppressiveness. Cléo complains that no one takes her seriously since she’s a woman, and that men think she’s faking her illness just in order to get attention. She seems to have internalized these stereotypes and her own victimization, just as many women in France did at the time. She keeps telling herself that beauty is everything: “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the French intellectual scene was dominated by existentialism, a movement in philosophy that would greatly influence art in France for the next two decades. Cleo from 5 to 7 is an existential film par excellence: For the entire story, Cléo struggles with real fears and anxieties of her mortality. The impending results of her medical exam and the real possibility that she might be diagnosed with cancer make her existential heroine, highly aware of her own mortality.

Corinne Marchand as Cléo
José Luis de Vilallonga as José, Cléo’s lover
Loye Payen as Irma
Dominique Davray as Angèle
Serge Korber as Maurice
Dorothée Blanck as Dorothée
Raymond Cauchetier as Raoul
Michel Legrand as Bob
Antoine Bourseiller as Antoine
Robert Postec as Doctor Valineau
Jean Champion as the café owner
Jean-Pierre Taste as the waiter at the café
Renée Duchateau as the seller of hats
Lucienne Marchand as the taxi driver


Credits: Directed, written by Agnès Varda
Produced by Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti
Cinematography Jean Rabier, Alain Levent, Paul Bonis
Edited by Pascale Laverrière, Janine Verneau
Music by Michel Legrand
Release date: April 11, 1962
Running time 90 minutes