This incredible movie is a dreamlike vision of a brief snapshot of life in 1960s Paris, directed by Agnès Varda. It could be described as a Jean-Luc Godard film shot through a female lens but from a wider lens angle. As much as I love Godard’s best movies from that era, this results in something bigger, more complex and in many ways, more energetic and transfixing. Actually, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina appear in this film momentarily in cameo roles, as actors in a silent film within the film — which works perfectly as a metaphor.
This belongs to the same world, but is somehow more real. It shows a fictional universe the universe of Godard films might be contained inside. We open with a tarot card reading scene that feels dark but somehow light, and is a standout scene in the history of cinema. The woman doing the reading does not sugar coat her words, and does not expect you to make a fuss about it — lest you put off her other customers. It is instantly engaging, and sparks a flame of anxiety and superstition that burns away through the glamorous and lighthearted film world throughout the story, somehow giving the movie a unique and transfixing energy.
There is a constant interplay between superficial fashion and luxury, playful joy and morbid obsession, life and death. We follow everyday events in the life of Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a somewhat famous and wealthy musician living in Paris, as she goes about her daily life, waiting to receive test results back from her doctor.
The film is charming, inviting, extremely glamorous, but it also has a kind of real grit and emotional grounding. It never gets lost in superficiality. Conversations are amusing and life-affirming. Every shot in the film, of life in Paris, holds interest. It is impossible not to love the world and life energy it shows. It is playful and exuberant, all the things 1960s Paris are at its most cinematic, but it is imbued with a mystical energy that feels unlike most movies of its genre and time.
Superstition feels like an alternative to the religion of its time in the same way the movie feels like an alternative to the male-dominated cinema of its time. I don't think superstition is a good substitute for anything (and I would go much further, to say it is a cancer), but I can see where it comes from here. The energy and pace established is distinct, consistent, and breathtaking, and the totality of events we see compressed into the Paris daily life we are witness to feels like a compression of all that Cléo loves in life.
The plot takes on dreamlike character, showing her anxiety to be a product of her love of life, and not something inwards looking or selfish. She owns and buys a lot of things, but she somehow does not feel materialistic. That is not where her energy comes from, despite appearances.
There is nothing wasted in the plot. Everything has meaning. There are few films like this ever made (actually, I think there are none) — executed in a sublimely artistic way, speaking on life while narrating on death, coming from a counter-direction to its time, and inviting and charming its viewer in every frame. A masterpiece that all should watch.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].