Cléo from 5 to 7 ★★★★

“Male Gaze,” is a film studies term that refers to how women are portrayed on film. It is not to be confused with how women are framed on screen (although that is an element to it). Film Theorist and Feminist Laura Mulvey coined the term in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. To quote Mulvey, “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Analyzing the text of a film is one of the first steps in film studies. In order to recognize a recurring theme or motif, the film must have identifiable text conveyed either through visual information or written/spoken dialogue. But when it comes to the relationship between filmmakers and women in the film industry, proper context is a necessity, especially when analyzing this film’s messages and ideas. The story of Agnes Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7 is meant to be a comment/deconstruction on how women feel being objectified and exploited.

In the film, our heroine Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a superstitious, yet successful French singer. The mainstream media looks at Cleo as an immortal goddess. She’s a popular singer and feels the pressure to maintain a certain appearance. In this way, she is literally aware of the male gaze and that of the public in general. A recurring visual motif of the film is a mirror. It’s seen at the beginning of the film when Cléo inspects herself, mirrors in cafes, restaurants, taxis, and even on the streets. Halfway through the film, Cléo remarks this to her, “I can’t see my own fears. I always think everyone’s looking at me, but I only look at myself.” Cléo has been so preoccupied with how many people are likely to judge her (considering that she is a renowned singer) that she hasn’t thought about if that’s even true. All of her friends and acquaintances aren’t inclined to critique her or her beauty; they try their best to give her as much love and affection as possible. It’s Cléo’s own insecurities and anxieties that are giving her trouble. With her new health issue, she worries about how the mainstream public will now view her. This is another example of the character and her own hypersensitivity to the male gaze.

In contrast, Cléo’s friend Dorothée--a model used for sculptures--is a woman literally objectified for art. But unlike Cléo, Dorothée sees no inherent issue with that. She says, “They’re looking at more than just me. A shape, an idea.” Dorothée has a boyfriend who is a projectionist. To cheer up Cléo, he shows the two of them a silent comedy with two women being used as slapstick comic props. A woman is sprayed by a man with a hose, and is essentially being abused for the sake of comedy. This is yet another example of the male gaze that frames and exploits women for the pleasure of male audiences. As she finishes watching the film and leaves her friends, Cléo’s smile subtly changes as if to imply that the viewing of this silent film did nothing to help her in her current emotional state. The film’s intent is to cause the audience to laugh at the woman in the silent film, which is a bitter reminder of Cléo and her own insecurities. This movie within a movie wants us to see a woman in emotional pain who is further tormented by her biggest fear--that audiences will judge or laugh at her. Varda wants us to see this as a jab to the traditional filmmaking of the time.
Near the end of the film, fearing she has stomach cancer, she awaits news from her doctor. She encounters a good-looking soldier in the park, Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), who is currently in a similar situation. In his case, he is being sent back to Algeria to fight in a war and risk being killed. Unlike her current lover, who views her as a shiny object or piece of jewelry, Cléo is moved by Antoine’s reassurance. He is a man who has no intention of seeing Cléo objectified. And for the first time in her career, Cléo is comforted knowing that someone is able to see her value as a person, “Great feelings are full of vanity, great minds, of foolishness,” says Antoine. She no longer fears the inevitable, and heads straight to the hospital to see her doctor.

Since this film was conceived around the time of the French New Wave in the 1960s, Cléo From 5 to 7 is Varda’s gift to the rising movement in France. The film doesn’t specify the timeframe of the setting, yet this kind of thinking could apply to any time period. Although there are efforts to advance women’s characters in film today, the male gaze in film persists. “The world of storytelling is still very much dominated by men, and for men. The tide, however, is shifting. Audiences have higher expectations for women characters and directors have broader imaginations.” If we want to create better stories for modern audiences, representation of women as fully realized characters with depth--versus being objectified or exploited--is necessary.