Lana Crowe analyses the trio of costumes in Cléo de 5 à 7, currently showing as part of the Agnès Varda season at the BFI Southbank.
Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7) is a film directed by French New Wave director Agnès Varda. Up-and-coming singer Florence ‘Cléo’ Victoire (Corinne Marchand) spends an anxious afternoon awaiting test results that may or may not confirm a diagnosis of cancer. We follow her on her day’s adventures, starting with a fatal tarot card reading, through shopping, rehearsing, several cafes, a life-modelling class, and a park, until finally, accompanied by a young soldier on leave from the Algerian front, she heads to the hospital to receive her judgement. In the course of these hectic two hours, one of Cléo’s primary concerns is her appearance and its inevitable relationship with her perception of herself. The three predominant emotional states of the film are matched by three equally as striking outfits. In a film so concerned with its visual impact, with the power of viewing and being viewed, I found that understanding Cléo’s clothing is an important part of understanding the film.
Cléo’s first outfit is an unusual structure, yet capturing the fashion zeitgeist. The fitted top, in a polka dot print material, is typical. At first glance, the skirt looks to be a simple a-line; however, at second look, there’s a dark fitted skirt underneath, visible where the billowing skirt parts. We already have a simple visual metaphor for our heroine: fashionable, and therefore transient, on the surface, but with dark hidden depths. As Cléo strides away from her upsetting experience with the tarot cards – a prediction of death – her delicate skirt swells like the wings of a butterfly (un papillon), a creature that Cléo associates with herself. The two halves are separated by a thick, constricting corset-like belt, which Angèle removes when Cléo later becomes distressed in café. It literally resembles a gaping whole in the middle of Cléo, resembling her fatalistic emptiness in the face of mortality, the illness which radiates from her stomach, and a Yonic symbol.
The second iconic outfit of the movie arrives as Cléo retreats to her room. In the bright whiteness Paris apartment heaven, she is surrounded by objects of idyll: antique furniture, intricate clocks (reminding us of the real-time structure of the movie and Cléo’s mortality), romantic rugs, a rocking chair, a rope swing and kittens playing in the background. Cléo looks angel-like, with feathers and fringe on the shoulders of her decadent dressing gown. It’s a transition piece: we see Cléo step out of her dress, but she does not become more open, or more vulnerable, and instead remains pristine. When Angèle helps Cléo slide into the dressing gown as she hangs from an exercise bar, the result is not only an iconic moment of soft comedy, but also reinforces the image of Cléo as the butterfly: cocooning, preparing for her transformation. The fastening of this dressing gown creates the same v-shaped opening as her first dress. It is also significant that during a romantic moment with her love interest, we catch a glimpse behind her changing screen, where the polka dot dress hangs: the first sign of Cléo’s illusion breaking down. The scene is also witness to a charming depiction of music-making, in which pianist Bob (composer Michel Legrand) and his collaborator Maurice propose new pop songs to Cléo. However, it is at the end of this sweet scene that Cléo’s emotional rendition of the melancholy ‘Sans Toi’ acts as a catalyst for her final transformation.
In a matter of seconds, Cléo has transmogrified from an angelic vision into a real woman: she pulls off her hairpiece, slips into a simple black dress and dons the farcical fur hat that we watched her buy earlier. The first Cléo declared that she found trying on clothes intoxicating; the same item has been subverted into a symbol of her own transgression, a rejection of the perfect Cléo, the ideal woman.