Agnes Varda – Cleo from 5 to 7 / Jane Campion – The Portrait of a Lady

The following is part one my coverage of Film at Lincoln Center’s 50th Mixtape: Free Double Features series.

The common thread between Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996) is time and freedom. Cleo (Corinne Marchand), feeling trapped by the chanteuse industry, anxiously wanders Paris and awaits the results of her cancer screening. Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), a young woman, who comes into an inheritance, attempts to fight off the manipulations of her various suitors. The story, in Campion’s adaptation of the Henry James’ novel of the same name, takes place across several time-jumps in which Isabel does finally marry and moves to Italy. Isabel may proclaim that nothing’s wrong with living in a cage if she enjoys it, but as the film progresses, she discovers the little extent that she chose the cage herself. Aesthetically, both films are vastly different yet strike a similar tone. Cleo from 5 to 7 features the wide-open sprawl of the Parisian streets, but unlike Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) where Paris becomes an emblem of freedom, here, it’s one of psychological entrapment. Varda constantly forces Cleo into interior spaces where she’s confronted with malaise time and time again. In a café, she plays her music on the jukebox, and no one seems to care—one person even berates it, because she can’t hear her friend over the music. In a taxi, Cleo’s forced to listen to her own song and laments how terrible the recording is. She begs her driver to change the station, and what comes next, but a report on the Algerian war. Ironically, Cleo begins to find her freedom in her newly made friend Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), a soldier about to be shipped to Algeria. Both, facing their own personal dooms, find solace in the other’s wit despite circumstance. The Portrait of a Lady also features a similar juxtaposition between large spaces and an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The settings here are grand mansions and chateaus of the Old World. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh utilizes Dutch-angle shots lending the film an air of Gothic-horror. The film’s first scene does take place outside, but it’s underneath the shelter of massive tree branches that recall a tent enclosure. Fitting then that it’s here we first see Isabel accosted by one of her suitors. Whereas Cleo can do nothing but wait, Isabel attempts to act. The beginning of The Portrait of a Lady sees her behaving defiantly, decrying marriage in favor of pursuing her own desire—the film’s core. A monologue at the film’s beginning explains that the best part of a kiss isn’t the act itself, but the moments beforehand. The Portrait of a Lady operates on a similar psychological level with Isabel flirting and fleeing from her various suitors.  In these moments, the film mixes a playful tone into the English historical drama, one that has become increasingly popular with films of this nature, such as Love & Friendship (2016) and The Favorite (2018). It’s too different of a story, however, once Isabel marries. Gone is playfulness, and now the atmosphere becomes one of dread as chess pieces are moved and Isabel is indeed manipulated. Like Cleo from 5 to 7, by the end of The Portrait of a Lady, Campion too delivers a bittersweet and ironic ending.


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