Female Inhibition and Empowerment in 1960s Paris

Part of our ongoing From the Videotheque Vault series, Ruby Katz brings us one of Agnes Varda’s remarkable contributions to the French New Wave, combining feminism and inhibition in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). This elegant display of womanhood in 1960s France plays as a front-runner in gynocentric cinema, revealing the insecurity and confidence of women roaming the Paris streets.

Directed by the acclaimed French female director Agnes Varda, Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) was released to international audiences in the summer of 1962. The film provides a surreal experience in which the audience follows the central character, Cleo, through a tumultuous day from the hours of five to seven. Varda, director and professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, presents her viewers with a feminist’s portrayal of a day in the life of Cleopatra (Corinne Marchand), a singer on the rise – having produced three hit singles – who struggles to accept the instability of the world around her, starting with the shear tenuousness of her own life.

It often proves interesting to observe the ways in which a female protagonist is treated differently. In the case of Cleo from 5 to 7, the audience is given the unique opportunity to experience these interactions alongside her, becoming privy to all relevant aspects of her life. In this way, the audience is able to form an understanding of Cleo as an individual as well as a generalized, if not stereotypical, female character.

The film provides a representation of the female experience, as Cleo symbolizes and confirms the exploitation of women in a consumerist, patriarchy driven, society. The plot is driven by Cleo’s eager anticipation for some very important test results, in her mind signifying the end of her beauty, allure, and success. Varda includes a slew of female characters who react to the news of Cleo’s potential illness, while also including a handful of men who prove consistently inadequate when put in the same position.

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Cleo, despite the fact that she is the protagonist, does not contribute to the film’s representation of feminism – at least, not in the conventional sense. Instead she provides a stereotypical basis from which the other female characters can take off from. As an individual, she is very reserved, modest, and at times judgmental of women who do not fit into that category. In the first half of the film, Cleo briefly socializes with her female cab driver, discussing the subject of the woman’s safety when driving male customers. While the conversation most definitely provides a commentary on the way women are treated unfairly by men, it also serves as a reflection on how women view themselves in the scheme of gender equality. While the cab driver asserts herself as strong and independent, capable of fending off thieves and inappropriate male behavior, Cleo views her attitude as “revolting.” Angele, Cleo’s assistant, notes that the cab driver is quite an impressive character, but Cleo cannot adjust to such an idea.

Angele provides the viewer with a different approach to female empowerment. While she is very clearly within the confines of the “mothering” stereotype, she still has the power to take that role and turn it into an unashamed sense of purposefulness. To Angele, Cleo is more a child than an employer, and her job is to take care of her and guide her throughout the day. And although Angele carries around these stereotypes, such as her tendency towards superstition and her elderly sensibilities, she holds them with pride. She observes the female cab driver and appreciates the notion that women can do anything. Yes, she is within the confines of an exploited female typecast, but Varda presents her as if to say that women can fit into these socially constructed labels while still being able to own these attributes as something they chose for themselves.

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In the second half of the film, we are introduced to Cleo’s friend Dorothee, a nude model and artist. Her character is perhaps the most blatant in terms of female exploitation as she is literally bared to the viewer. However, her nakedness does not necessarily mean she is being exploited. Like the cab driver, she is portrayed as completely uninhibited. Cleo seems almost embarrassed as she watches Dorothee model, while at the same time perhaps expressing a tinge of jealousy at the freedom her lifestyle allows. Their characters seem almost exactly opposite from economic and characteristic standpoints. Cleo is portrayed as weighed down, be that either from her illness or from the suffocating baggage of her newfound fame and success. Dorothee is so light that she practically flies from one spot to the next, taking Cleo along with her from her work to visiting her loving and stable boyfriend. Cleo, in comparison, no longer finds joy in her singing and feels belittled by the men around her, especially by the man that she is seeing. It serves to show, through comparison, that in limiting herself to gender constructs, Cleo has found herself the unhappiest of all the women portrayed in this film. Varda presents these uninhibited women as fulfilled by their personal lives, while Cleo seems to always fall short in comparison.

While depicting the women in the film as strong and absolute – with the exception of Cleo – Varda takes care to also show gender inequalities through the actions and responses of the men in Cleo’s life. The viewers become privy to the condescending attitudes of the men she works with as well as that of her “boyfriend.” Cleo is encouraged to accept her partner’s treatment of her because he is attractive and successful. Even Angele encourages the relationship, letting Cleo know how lucky she is to even be considered by him. She allows herself to be belittled by him as a result, tolerating her lack of priority in his life. The composers that she works with demean her in a similar fashion as they treat her at face value. She tells them that she is ill, but instead of expressing concern they accuse her wanting more attention. They treat her as if she were a spoiled starlet and, as a result, that is the performance she gives them. Cleo allows herself to be swept away into these stereotypes as a way of receiving validation, becoming a quite literal symbol of female submission through validation. It is in this way, above others, that Cleo truly becomes a portrayal of female exploitation.

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Somewhat ironically, Cleo finds her feminist strength by ways of a man. She meets a handsome stranger along the park who does something none of the other characters do: he takes her seriously. It is from their interactions that the viewer can witness Cleo unwinding and becoming more herself than the validation-seeking stereotype she had been earlier in the film. And, when it is time for her to finally hear her medical results, she is no longer constrained or suffocating underneath the baggage of it all.

Cleo from 5 to 7, in its treatment of gender roles, proves to be heavily progressive for its time. Showcasing different types of women roaming through the Paris streets, allowing Varda to portray a world in which female characters can find fulfillment in embracing their own capabilities, unhindered by stereotypes and expectations.


AuthorRuby Katz is a fourth year at Case Western Reserve University, completing a degree in English Literature and Film Studies. This summer she is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets.  

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