In Which It Is Written On Her Face


Everything Turns Black


I have, as I write this, an earache and pain in the left side of my neck, symptoms of a sinus infection that was impervious to Amoxicillin. Periods of mild terror have accompanied this sickness, as they have most other physical discomfort I’ve experienced in the last year or so. Something I read or heard once about cancer or meningitis or parasites, about women knowing their bodies, knowing when something is wrong, will couple with any slight symptom in a wave of obsessive thoughts that locks up my stomach and convulses my legs and makes my heart beat in my teeth. The fear of illness has physical symptoms. I know that worrying isn’t helping anything.

And it’s not even a complicated problem. It’s easy to reason out the origins of my recent hypochondria. This nebulous time of my life would explain it — that I’m not sure where I’ll live or what I’ll be doing in a few months, and it’s hard to picture myself moving beyond my current confusion. This sort of anxiety can’t be simply analyzed away — because it is, taken broadly, valid. How do I talk myself out of a fear of what might only be forestalled, but not avoided? Here is dread at its most basic, and most founded: the day will come when I no longer control my body. It controls me.


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Still these tricks I play on myself, the counterfeiting of signs and certainty, are not valid. The border between confronting life’s hardest truth and indulging in the most juvenile self-deception is the hypochondriac’s domain. As Antoine, the young soldier of Agnès Varda’s film Cléo from 5 to 7, says to the title character, “Every great feeling is full of little vanities, also the great spirit of silliness.”

Death omens disguising themselves as license-plate numbers and offhand remarks are preferable to an unknowable future, promising loss stranger and more painful than I am imagining. Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest investigations of hypochondria as a modern ailment and fear as a kind of decadence. Cléo meets Antoine in a park after she has spent the day in mental agony, waiting for test results that will tell her whether her stomach illness is something serious. Antoine comments that it is the first day of summer: “It’s the longest day of the year,” he says. “Today the sun leaves Gemini for Cancer.” “Shut your mouth,” Cléo says.

Cléo, a pop star who is remarkable for her vanity and childishness, does what she can to ransom some knowledge of the future from the present — content to exchange good fortune for certainty, she sees calamity at every turn. The first scene of the film shows Cléo visiting a psychic for a tarot reading, one which presages “evil forces,” illness, and even death. “The cards said I was sick,” Cléo sobs to her assistant after the reading. “Is it written on my face?”

Her question is central — what can be known from what can be seen? Just as we attempt to divine the future from the present, we want to read the internal in the external. Cléo regards herself in mirrors constantly, and we often hear her thoughts in voiceover as she does. “Ugliness is a kind of death,” she thinks. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.” Her life is distinguished by that most modern activity: to look, to watch. As a pop singer she participates in creating the cultural spectacle, and she either sees or imagines people leering at her everywhere she goes. On the streets of Paris large crowds surround a man swallowing frogs and another piercing his arm with a long piece of wire, the coarsest embodiments of what it is to be public, what it is to be on display.

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Cléo from 5 to 7 is not a meta-film, concerned with filmmaking and theory, but in its exploration of spectatorship and consumerism, Varda’s film does seem aware of itself as a product. At one point Cléo and her friend Dorothée go to a movie theatre where they watch a silent short featuring French New Wave superstars Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Jean-Claude Brialy. Godard plays a man who watches his lover, played by Karina, walk down a flight of stairs and trip on a hose. Godard puts on his signature dark glasses and everything turns black — including Karina’s dress and her complexion. It seems Karina has died in the fall, and a sooty workman, played by Constantine, sprays her corpse with the hose. An undertaker appears in a hearse to remove her body. Godard is inconsolable, but as he removes his sunglasses to wipe his tears, he sees the scene take place another way. After Karina trips, a doctor in an ambulance appears, rather than the undertaker in the hearse. As if she were looking in a mirror, Cléo sees her own problems reflected on the screen. Cléo from 5 to 7 shows the act of watching as directing the self inward, rather than outward. Like hypochondria, it allows for the illusion that everything is about you.

The filmmakers of the French New Wave knew that the great unfulfilled promise of spectatorship is escape, and dread lingers on the periphery of every happy distraction. In one scene, Cléo tries on hats, blissfully taking in her face in many mirrors, thinking, “Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me.” Then the camera moves outside, and the cars and passersby on the street are reflected in the window of the hat shop. This is an intrusion: traffic sounds drown out the scene’s romantic music as the real world is superimposed on Cléo’s fantasy world.


Afterward, in a taxi with her assistant, Cléo listens to news dispatches on the radio. She can only hear herself in one item, a story about the singer Edith Piaf recovering from an operation. The rest tell of farmers’ unrest and military tribunals, and they are unwelcome reminders that most of the world does not concern her, and larger troubles than hers exist. Other envoys of the outside world disturb Cléo during the ride — large African sculptures in a window display, a group of art students who descend on their cab wearing masks. These are hints of the specter haunting the film, the true source of dread, the greatest proof in France in 1962 that the world is neither good nor predictable — the Algerian War.

Cléo from 5 to 7 was released in April 1962, a month after a ceasefire was declared between French troops in Algeria and the National Liberation Front (FLN) insurgents, and just two months before Algeria was declared independent. The Algerian War exemplified particular type of modern war: one waged against communist or Muslim insurgencies; one which resists the word “war” (in Algeria, the term of choice was “pacification”); one marked by the use of terrorism and torture; one in which victory is impossible, and anyway, beside the point. (The history class I dropped in my junior year of college on twentieth-century Algeria would probably have been relevant here; I was so depressed then that all I could do was read fashion magazines, and that might also be relevant.) That this kind of warfare gnaws at the liberal western conscience and undermines the security wealthy countries believe they have earned is something any American living in 2014 knows.


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For France, this was not merely a far-flung colonial conflict. Cléo’s Paris was shaken by ancillary violence, including the Paris Massacre of 1961 where perhaps hundreds of pro-FLN Algerians were killed by law enforcement. Acts of terrorism known as the Café Wars claimed civilian lives in Paris throughout the war. But the terrorist, like the filmmaker, acts with knowledge of the spectacle, and where apparent comfort still exists, fear is often sublimated to fascination. Cléo listens to news of Algeria on the radio with the partial attention that she listens to her own songs. A crowd surrounds a window shattered by a bullet hole as if it were a man swallowing frogs.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is a covertly political film, and in this way, it is didactic. The viewer is meant to uncomfortably identify with Cléo; she is a sympathetic figure, but not an attractive one. Signs of cruelty and devastation surround her, but her terror manifests itself as self-absorption. Only when Cléo can truly accept the scale of horror and destruction is she able to free herself from some anxiety. Antoine is on leave from Algeria, a visitor from the heart of danger. “I’m afraid of everything,” Cléo tells him. “Birds, storms, elevators, needles, and now this great fear of death.” “In Algeria, you’d be afraid all the time,” Antoine says.

He has to return to Algeria that night, and he agrees to go to the hospital with her to get the results of her test if she will see him off at the train station. On the hospital grounds, Cléo is overcome by the smallness of her problems. “We’ve got so little time,” she says. “It’s silly to go looking for the doctor. It doesn’t matter. I can phone him later.” Her doctor then speeds up in his convertible and tells her blithely that her illness is not serious. “My fear seems to have gone,” Cléo says. “I seem to be happy.” It is unclear whether she is released from her despair by the diagnosis, or by a realization that the diagnosis is ultimately insignificant.

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The entire film depicts Cléo’s journey to find peace in the universe’s indifference. She realizes halfway through the film that everyone is as self-interested as she is, that her feeling of specialness is an illusion. “I thought everyone looked at me,” she thinks to her reflection in the mirror. “I only look at myself.” Just as Dorothée explains about her job as a nude model for a sculpture class: “They’re looking at more than just me. A shape, an idea… it’s as if I weren’t there.”

Cléo is amazed by her friend’s job. “You don’t mind posing,” she says to Dorothée. “I’d feel so exposed, afraid people would find a fault.” Dorothée replies, “My body makes me happy, not proud.” There is some freedom in the body’s impermanence — but I still haven’t found a way to stop grieving it. It would be noble to let go of worrying about my body’s ultimate decline, but there is the illusion of nobility in tormenting myself with the inevitability of death. It reminds me of a line from John Ashbery, that “the agony is permanent,/rather than eternal” — though that is what I have referred to before as a “feelings distinction,” rather than a logical one. 

In the most amazing scene of Cléo from 5 to 7, Cléo is practicing new songs with her songwriters. One song, a ballad called “Cri d’Amour” ascends from a simple rehearsal to a full musical number, complete with an accompanying orchestra. Cléo’s performance is affecting — tears stream down her face as she sings of a lost love. The lyrics emphasize how the sorrow has manifested itself physically: “With beauty unseen, exposed to cruel winter,” she sings. “I’m an empty house without you.” After the performance, her songwriters congratulate themselves. “This song will revolutionize the music business,” they say. “What’s a song?” says a sobbing Cléo. “How long can it last?”

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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