By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: “Cléo From 5 to 7,” Janus Films]
Seeing the Janus icon before a movie builds the same kind of anticipation for the art-house crowd that the hopping lamp of the Pixar logo elicits from amped-up children (and some adults). Janus has acquired the cream of the world’s art cinema for 50 years, cultivating a large library while adapting to each advancement in viewing technology, from 16mm to laserdiscs to DVD. The repertory houses in NYC have filled their schedules with Janus gems this autumn, from the Walter Reade’s comprehensive series that ran alongside the New York Film Festival to the IFC Center’s upcoming year-long Weekend Classics tribute. For those of you in the rest of the world, Criterion has released a handsome 50-film set entitled “Essential Art House,” the discs nestled alongside a 240-page book of comprehensive background notes. The ideal way to view these masterworks, though, is on the big screen. These are films to lose oneself in pausing them to eat dinner or scold the kids could easily disrupt their subtle rhythms.
The IFC Center begins their series on November 22 with a new 35mm print of Agnès Varda’s “Cléo From 5 to 7,” a French New Wave wonder from 1961 also the year of Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” and Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.” “Cléo” hasn’t established a foothold in the pantheon like those two, but it should. Corinne Marchand plays Cléo, a vain Yé-Yé pop singer (like Chantal Goya in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculin Féminin”), who impatiently wanders the Paris streets for two hours until she calls upon her doctor for the results of an unnamed medical test. She believes she has inoperable cancer. Taking place in an approximation of real time (it runs a little over an hour and a half), the film follows her encounters with friends, lovers and strangers as the clock winds down until she discovers the result. Considering the subject matter, it is improbably buoyant, as Varda expertly employs the language of the New Wave, from location shooting to jump cuts to multiple narrative digressions (most famously, Godard and Anna Karina act in a silent comedy short that Cléo watches at a theater).
Early on it’s not clear if she’s simply being dramatic Varda packs the early scenes with mirrors: Cléo eyes herself at every diner, haberdasher, and shop window. This illness could be a childish ploy for attention a conclusion her composer and lyricist come to when they crash her place, donning fake hospital attire complete with oversized syringe. Their arrival marks the first tonal shift, from mournful soul-searching to a light-hearted musical comedy. Scored by the great Michel Legrand, it soars with clever wordplay, hummable tunes, and an elegantly tracking camera. Then the lyricist suggests she sing his latest work, “Cry of Love,” whose opening piano trills foreshadow the swooping melodrama of Legrand’s work on Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Demy would marry Varda in 1962). The camera pans past the two guests and tilts up towards Cleo, framing her against a black background as she laments the death of a relationship. It’s a stunning moment for me and for Cléo, as afterward she rips off her wig and stalks out, hiding her moment of self-realization underneath a tantrum. Her façade is breaking down.
The final third of the film completes her transformation, as she bends her will for the love of another and there’s no more romantic meet-cute scene in history than when the hyper-articulate Antoine seals their fate over a bridge. The test result comes in but by then it’s beside the point the final shot of euphoric union could make any hardened pseudo-intellectual’s heart go pitter pat.
After “Cléo,” the IFC Center offers up the Japanese horror story “Kwaidan” (1964), Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos” (1976), Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957), and Jean Cocteau’s enchanting version of “Beauty and the Beast” (1946). More is promised, so happy viewing.