French New Wave Friday at the PFA

The two films I saw Friday night at the Pacific Film Archive were not officially a double bill, yet they worked very well as one. Both were of the French New Wave, and made when the Wave was truly new–1961 and ’62.

They have more in common than that. Both films have a female protagonist who is in ever scene, and very little of a conventional plot. And both divide the story into titled chapters

The films were Vivre sa vie and Cléo From 5 to 7.

B+ Vivre sa vie

Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of Jean-Lu Godard. In fact, he’s easily my least favorite well-respected filmmaker. I love his first feature, Breathless, but that’s about it. Every other film I had seen before Friday I not only didn’t care for but actively disliked.

Nevertheless, I decided to attend this screening. The main reason was simple: I wanted to see Cléo From 5 to 7 on the big screen and decided to go with the whole double bill. Besides, as I said before, I love Breathless, and Vivre sa vie was also reasonably early in his career. Maybe he was still making good films at this stage.

He was. Vivre sa vie isn’t as good as Breathless, but I liked it a lot. Very formal in structure, it tells you at the start that the film has 12 “scenes.” Each of these scenes is set off with a “This is what will happen” intertitle. Together, they explore the main character’s journey from music store clerk to prostitute.


I would describe Goddard’s camera and editing techniques as rigorously casual. The camera sits still, without movements or cuts, for long periods of time. It’s a bit like Ozu…if Ozu liked showing off and had no sense of composition. In the first scene (after the credits), two people talk at a lunch counter. The movie cuts back and forth between the backs of their heads. It never gets that weird again, but the framing often feels intentionally haphazard.

Vivre sa vie is at times charming, funny, sexy, and informative…and sometimes boring. You definitely develop an attachment to the lead character, but you don’t get to know her in depth. Goddard seems completely neutral here, without the didactic political preaching that would mar his later works. I can’t even say if the film celebrates or condemns prostitution. And yes, that’s a good thing.

But the picture doesn’t end well. The melodramatic climax felt tacked on, as if Goddard didn’t quite feel confident enough to let this plotless movie to just end.

The PFA screened Vivre sa vie as part of the series Fassbinder’s Favorites.The 35mm print had seen better days, but was certainly acceptable.

Cléo From 5 to 7

I knew going in that I loved this movie. I saw it a year or two ago on Hulu Plus, and it blew me away. I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen (or even the relatively big screen of the PFA). I was not disappointed.

Corinne Marchand carries the film as the the Cléo in the title. Young and beautiful, her life is just becoming wonderful. A pop singer who recently hit the charts, she’s newly rich and famous. Only a few people recognize her by sight, but her voice is everywhere.

But that life may also be shutting down. She may have cancer, and is now waiting for test results. They could be a death sentence.

As the title implies, Cléo From 5 to 7 takes place in a very constricted piece of time. The film begins a 5:00, and Cléo expects to hear from her doctor before 7:00  We see her visit a fortune teller, buy a hat, welcome a lover and a songwriting team to her cat-filled apartment, spend time with a friend, and fall in love with a man who also may have limited time.


The film was written and directed by Agnès Varda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: She would be as famous and revered as Goddard and Truffaut if only she had been born with a penis. The screening I attended was the last one in a PFA retrospective called Afterimage: Agnès Varda on Filmmaking. I discussed an earlier screening in the series a couple of weeks ago.

Varda was a photographer before she became a filmmaker, and her films are if nothing else great to look at. Cléo From 5 to 7 isn’t as visually striking as La Pointe Courte, which wonderful as it is could be accused of showing off. The photography here manages to be both beautiful and in the service of the atmosphere. Dappled sunlight makes Paris both real and romantic. A moving camera going by people who glance at it adds a sense not so much of paranoia but of lack of privacy. One long shot of her spacious apartment tells you so much about Cléo’s loves and tastes. As the beautiful star takes off her clothes on one side of the screen, our eyes are drawn to a playful kitten on the other side. The wonders of a short lens.


The movie even includes a little silent comedy tribute, starring Jean-Luc Goddard of all people. The sequence makes no sense in the context of the story, but so what? Varda was having some fun.

As the title suggests, the film unspools in real time. But that title is inaccurate. The movie is only 90 minutes long, and ends at about 6:30 rather than the promised 7:00. I’m not complaining. That’s the right point in the story to end it.

Cléo From 5 to 7 has recently been restored, and was projected off of a DCP–my first time seeing that kind of projection at the PFA. It looked great, complete with barely noticeable film grain.