The Most Emotional Scene in Cinema
Film as a medium has a lot of potential. It can bring new innovations to light, kickstart careers, bring groups of people together, but above all, film has a powerful ability to make us feel. Whether it delivers a feeling of anger, sadness, joy, or frustration, film allows us to experience our most human tendency, emotion. After watching over 2000+ movies in my life, I don't believe any film does a better job at conveying emotion than Agnes Varda's Cléo From 5 to 7, specifically one scene in particular: the rehearsal scene.
Cléo From 5 to 7 is a French film by legendary director, Agnes Varda. The story follows a young singer named Cléo Victoire who believes she is dying of cancer after being told so from a tarot card reading. The film centers around a day in the life of Cléo and how she copes from the devastating news. Although this concern about her health sits in the back of her head for the entirety of the film, she still needs to show up to work as a singer, this leads to perhaps the most well-known scene in the entire movie: the rehearsal scene.
This scene consists of Cléo in a room with her composer and a few others as she prepares to sing a song that her pianist, Bob has put together for her. The name of the piece is Sans Toi or "Without You" in English. In a literal sense it is about someone who deeply misses their significant other to the point where they start to physically wither away. Cléo is standing directly beside the piano wearing a feathery white robe with a blonde updo wig sitting neatly on the her head like a crown.
As the scene progresses, Bob starts to play the piano and the camera begins to slowly focus on Cléo as she reads over her sheet music, singing along for the first time. There is little emotion in her voice as she initially sings. As the song continues the camera moves closer and closer to her face and she slowly lifts her head from the sheet music, turning her face to stare directly into the camera lens. As the second verse begins, the background of the music studio promptly fades away into nothingness. It appears like Cléo is standing in a vast ocean of black, the only light being her. The song continues and her voice gradually becomes more emotional and in tune with the music as she stares into the camera. As she sings the chorus a single tear drips down her right cheek and she belts the lines of the final chorus: "Et si tu viens trop tard on m' aura mise en terre seule, laide et livide sans toi, sans toi sans toi." At this point she is practically yelling, but still focused, with her eyes locked in on the camera. Her voice slowly gets quieter before eventually coming to a halt. The moment she stops singing, the camera zooms out, bringing the audience back into the rehearsal room. An abrupt return to reality. After mere seconds, Cléo breaks down in tears.
For the mere two minutes this scene lasts, it feels like Cléo is singing directly to you, longing for you to come home. But to those who decide to look below the surface will find a much deeper meaning to this scene and why it ilicits the shocking reaction from Cléo. For this specific song, context matters, in this case the context is Cléo's supposed cancer diagnosis. The lyrics of the last verse, translated into English read, "And if you come too late I will be buried alone, ugly and livid, without you, without you, without you."
To those who don't know the context of this film, of course it sounds like merely a sad love song. However by looking closer, it can be interpreted that Cléo is singing about herself. Her character is naturally supersticious and she has full faith in the tarot card reader who told her she might have cancer. She is afraid of her body deteriorating to the point where she is "alone, ugly, and livid" with no one left in her life, and eventually she will die alone. It makes the song so much more tragic and heartbreaking than it would be if it were just a breakup song.
In true Agnès Varda fashion, Cléo From 5 to 7 is a film centered around the complexity of the female gaze. Varda had a lot to say about the way women were viewed in France during the time her film was being produced. As in how women are rarely taken seriously and often seen as being "too emotional." That's why she is bombarded by concern and criticism after she begins crying. Cléo is a character that longs to be taken seriously. She is rarely ever seen as not entirely "put together" or cloaked in gorgeous clothes. This is Cléo's way of prolonging the inevitable, she belongs that as long as she is covered in expensive coats, fur hats, and platinum blonde wigs, she won't appear to be dying.
Throughout my life I have seen over 2000 movies, some modern, some not, some comedies, some tragedies. But through it all, no single scene has truly stuck with me as much as the rehearsal from Cléo From 5 to 7. Corinne Marchand and Agnès Varda truly deserve more credit for the sheer emotion they are able to portray on screen.