What it is to be a woman in Cleo from 5 to 7

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Watching Agnes Varda’s 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 last night inspired me to write a post about feminist films, something that I’ll continue to do as a reflection on portrayals of women historically in the mass media. Finding important references to feminism, be it in books, films or art, is often difficult and you have to spend hours trawling on the internet (!), so I thought my blog could provide people with some extra help!

I thought Varda’s classic discussed everlasting feminist issues, such as the trappings of female beauty and the prevalence of everyday sexism towards the beautiful so simply, and it was incredibly refreshing to see a classic French film discussing these issues instead of simply fawning over a sweet, fluttery-eyed naïf.

We see Cleo, a singer based in Paris who is praised for her good looks and grace, awaiting the results of a cancer test. From 5pm to 7pm, in real-time, Cleo matures dramatically as she rudely confronts the meaning of her own life and the matter of death. Varda majestically captures Cleo’s regression as she realizes the vacuity of her own life, and her eventual maturity, as she comes to the realization that true life should be seized when you may have little of it left to enjoy.

Cleo does away with her lover (who treats her like a princess clad in feathers and sugar) those who write her music (who do not respect her obvious talent for singing) and tries to forget her own material beauty. At the start of the film, she states: “Ugliness is a kind of death… As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive more than others” and is constantly looking in mirrors at herself. However she soon realises, when whispering “everybody spoils me, nobody loves me”, that unless she makes strives beyond just physical beauty, she will always preserve herself as a sex kitten with a cherubic face – always loved, sadly never respected.

In 1960s Paris, supposedly at a time when women could live independent, fashionable and liberated lives, it’s sad that Cleo could only do away with her obsession with beauty and perfection, and try to live a life where she could be respected for more than her looks, when faced with possible death. That shows that it’s only (some might think sadly) in extreme circumstances that people make the grandest changes to their lives.

Varda portrayed that even when women are given new positions of power, such as being celebrities, it is an endless struggle to deviate against the norm of a sexy, beautiful, successful female.

Cleo was constantly struggling against that role, and what is great about her is that she matures and finds relationships that are meaningful to her, casting off her old shackles. She grows as a person and decides to question her objectification. You can only hope, at the end of the film, when she receives the results of her medical results, that she can live to find herself again and again.

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