Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Movies About Women Edition

Cléo from 5 to 7

The idea of experimental or avant-garde--it might be better to say the aspiration--is that formal experimentation with the structural components of a work of aesthetics can result in the unexpected. In the case of Cléo from 5 to 7, that unexpected thing is romance. In the early parts of the film, one can see the way that the camera is playing at the conventions of typical action shots, conversation shots, and the like, in the same way that the action itself is mannered and fractured, occurring in real time but with almost Fellini-like interludes. The camera will drift out of frame to pick up someone else's conversation; it will land at unexpected angles; the screen goes black or almost black several times; it will occasionally and without explanation shift the camera from a view of the characters to the character's own view. It reminds one of the story about Akira Kurosawa, who was asked by a famous director--John Ford, maybe--why he had composed a particular shot in a film in the manner he did; the answer was that to move the camera an inch to one side would have shown the Tokyo airport, not ideal for an epic set in medieval times. The direction shows such masterful control to work in so many continuous takes, and controlling for so many things that would traditionally be offscreen. When we meet Antoine at the end, the film can suggest several possibilities for what the encounter might be--unexpected street harassment, a tryst, a threat, an awkward encounter--that when it turns into none of these, it focused quite intently on the restorative power of conversation, of art, of beliefs, of humor, of human connection. But it requires that potential volatility, and sense of the unanticipated as built up throughout the film, to make its ending so transformative.
Obviously quite an inspiration for the Before trilogy, as well.

Ida received a lot of buzz for its artistic affectations: black and white, each shot framed with minimal camera movement (most with none), use of framing to emphasize the painterly aspects of each shot, and light that borrows fully from Baroque chiaroscuro and most specifically from Vermeer. When I was a younger man, I would have undoubtedly preferred this to the chaos of Cléo specifically for its affectations and classicism, and, as an older man, was prepared to dismiss it for those affectations. But over the course of the film, the action in each scene increases, to the point that the last shot, a long take of Ida walking, is the only one done with a hand-held camera. One has to account for both the technical aspects of the film as well as its subject matter, not least because the story centers around two characters, one of whom does not reveal very much about herself. The reading I am left with is that the final shot represents the only, or first true, action taken by someone who has mostly followed the course they were on, or simply reacted to events. The young man makes the mistake of offering her all the things she only knows by their absence, or as a source of pain, and she ultimately feels unable--or unwilling--to do any of that. Ida saw herself, as her aunt repeatedly insisted, as having a duty to people like her, until she no longer knew any people like that.

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