“Cléo from 5 to 7” is the second feature film by French New Wave director Agnes Varda, accompanied by the music of Michel Legrand. It took part in Cannes Film Festival in 1962.
Florence “Cleo” Victoire, played by Corinne Marchand, is a Parisian pop singer, awaiting the results of what she already knows will be a grim medical diagnosis. Tracing in real time her afternoon between 5 PM and 7 PM, we follow her movements through Paris as she tried to connect with those around her, looking for consolation and attempting to come to terms with her fear of imminent death.
Set in the 60s, this feature was a significant feminist film for its time, and one of the starters of the French New Wave; but it also holds a vibrant musical experience created by Michel Legrand.
French composer and jazz pianist Michel Legrand helped define the 60s with his composition “The Windmills of Your Mind”, which won an Oscar after it was featured in the crime movie ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’. His career in cinema spans over 154 film soundtracks. He worked with some of France’s pre-eminent New Wave directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy. But in his work with Agnes Varda on “Cleo from 5 to 7”, a different side of Legrand is presented.
Initially, Legrand was not considered to play in the film. Varda explained in an interview published in “Les Lettres Fracaises” in 1962 that she cast him after observing him rehearse the songs with Marchand, saying he was “very gifted and had a marvelous personality, exactly right for this role.” In the role of Bob the pianist, Legrand had a comedic personality, with an infectious energy and passion for music, not to mention an effortless command of the piano.
Using lyrics written by Varda, Legrand managed to compose soundtracks that shaped the entire atmosphere and character progression, interpreting the shifts of emotions that Cleo undergoes throughout the day.
From the stages of the film, as Cléo descends the staircase, the same three-note pattern on different tones repeats; her footsteps follow a metronome-like beat, evoking the sound of a ticking clock, propelling her to move forward onscreen despite her clear distress; because – for Cleo – time is running out.
Whilst in a taxi, she becomes embarrassed when her song is heard on the radio, which indicates a conflict in her relation to her music. The climax of the film is also musically interpreted, featuring the film score, during Cleo and Bob’s rehearsal.
Following her abrupt ending of the rehearsal and taking to the streets, Cleo meets Antoine, a soldier on the leave. As they walk away silently, four disparate dissonant chords emerge from the soundtrack and lead into the closing credits.
The four soundtracks of “Cleo from 5 to 7”’ were released as an EP on January 2nd, 1962. Michel Legrand kept working right up until his death at the age of 86 on January 26th, 2019. Having announced plans to perform at London’s Royal Albert on September 20th, the promoters have said that the concert will still go ahead, but as a tribute to the late French composer, who is said to have radically transformed the way music goes with film.
The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know. Michel Legrand