We learn right away that Cleo has a doctor’s appointment in two hours where she’ll receive the results of tests that will tell whether or not she has cancer and the prognosis if she does. The movie does just exactly what the title tells us it will. We follow Cleo for those two hours leading up to the appointment.
We see moments of excitement where she’s convinced she’s going to get good news, and even though she doesn’t have any good reason to anticipate any of the potential answers (only the tests can answer those question), she convinces us that she’s going to be okay and we share in her joy. We also see moments where she’s convinced she’s dying. Again, she’s so convinced that she convinces us, and we feel her despair.
Then there are the moments where she just tries to live her life. She’s a professional singer, and the time she spends in the studio is filled with conflict that we realize isn’t normal. She usually gets along well with her band and the songwriter she works with, but everything’s different this day. She doesn’t express any of what she’s going through personally to her co-workers, but we can tell exactly what she’s thinking and feeling every second that she’s physically at work but mentally at that appointment that hasn’t come yet.
Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, and through most of the movie Cleo doesn’t do very much. The world goes on around her. We hear conversations going on that aren’t relevant to Cleo and therefore aren’t important to the story or to us. What matters is what’s going on inside of Cleo as the world goes on around her, while she’s going through the most anguish and anxiety she’s ever experienced in her life. Corinne Marchand makes us able to understand what’s going on inside of Cleo every second of the movie because of how expressive she is as an actor when she doesn’t speak.
Cleo from 5 to 7 is a challenging film because we’re expected to think and feel with the character, not follow a story. We’re expected to build empathy on our own, not because the story has had an emotional impact on us but just because of what she’s going through. That’s precisely what makes it a masterpiece. Corinne Marchand’s acting performance and Agnes Varda’s direction take us inside the soul of Cleo for those two hour leading up to her appointment.
As we focus on Cleo’s mental and emotional state as she awaits the news of her own mortality, we are confronted with our own views on mortality. It allows us to experience what it feels like to wait for that news and asks us to try to keep living in the midst of the waiting, just like Cleo’s forced to. But’s it not the type of living we’re used to. It’s a type of living that focuses on the reality of death, confronting our beliefs about death and what comes after death and also confronting our current life and how we’ll live differently if we get good news. Even though the movie reveals the results of Cleo’s tests at the end of the movie, they really don’t matter to our experience. As we’ve been faced with Cleo’s traumatic wait, we’re forced into our very own traumatic meditation where we ask the same questions Cleo does and we think about the same things Cleo does because they are universal realities that we all must confront but usually don’t until in a situation like Cleo’s. And going through it with Cleo is challenging and painful but ultimately hopeful and rewarding dependent on the conclusions we come to during this meditation on the shortness of life.