Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

I make this vow from Psalm 23 every day. And then, within moments, I break it: Some form of dread triggers alarms, jarring me to feel anxious about my health, my job security, my future, my marriage, my loved ones, my neighbors, my country. I lose my perspective. I lose my faith. I lose my grip.

Alarms of this nature go off in Cleo’s head early in Agnes Varda’s French New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7. That’s because she’s just learned that she may be…


I’m sorry.

I need to pause mid-sentence and clarify some things.

I’ve promised you a film review. And I just can’t manage it. Not yet. I need to tell you the context of this occasion.

It’s difficult to justify the time and energy required for writing film reviews right now. Writing for me, like studying for my students, is more difficult than usual during a pandemic. That’s probably obvious — you don’t need me to point that out. And I don’t mean to groan “Woe is me! Why won’t people stop suffering so I can write?” This isn’t about that.

But for readers who look back at this post in some distant, forgetful future, know this: As I try to tell you about a 1962 film about glamour, the Algerian war, feminism, and existentialism, other things are demanding my attention. And those pressures are influencing my experience of the movies I watch. I am seeing differently, thinking differently, writing differently because of these days of relentlessly dire tidings.

Imagine this scrolling like a Star Wars Opening Crawl across your screen:

In the spring of 2019, COVID-19 and the chaos it has unleashed are claiming thousands of lives every day: our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of strangers we’re called to serve. It’s not just a threat — it’s a reality. For many of us, those losses have already begun, bringing shock, anger, and grief. Businesses are failing. Fortunes and futures are being lost. Kicking us while we’re down, America’s Narcissist-in-Chief is claiming “success” even as he silences truth-tellers — the doctors and scientists most qualified to help us. As he signs death sentences for thousands more, he does so to the cheers of his blind followers. His supporters and enablers don’t seem to care that history will show how catastrophically they failed, how they bear responsibility for so many sick and dying around the world.

Meanwhile, as many of us fight back against our own self-destructively deceitful government, and as we dutifully wear masks in order to “protect and serve” high-risk populations, thousands more are falling into denial or conspiracy theories, mocking those who humbly take precautions, choosing reckless self-indulgence over Love’s call for us to prioritize the care of our neighbors.

So much that once seemed reliable has become unstable. We are living in the beginnings of a long season of hardship, and we need to set our minds on the things that matter most.

Is this a tangent? A bait-and-switch? Did I offer a film review and then go on a rant?

Actually, no — I’m arguing that this might be the time for all of us to meditate on great art.

 

If art is just “entertainment,” then why bother spending time with it in these circumstances? And why invest time in writing about it? Good questions. But if art can be a path to revelation, if it can capture our imaginations, inspire change, and “catch the conscience” of the observer, well… bring it on. We need it now.

As I track my friends on social media, some speak of turning to movies for “escape.” That’s great — if you need “escape,” that suggests that something’s imprisoning or oppressing you. But me? I’m finding that movies actually focus my attention. They tune up the instruments of my imagination, mind, and heart. And thus, they’re intensifying everything right now, bringing into sharp focus so much of what is happening around me in “the real world”: the trouble, the suffering, the questions, the uncertainties. Movies, like poetry, are reminding me of what really matters. Good movies, anyway. Whether it’s a vision of love, suffering, absurdity, or hope, it all seems so immediate, so relevant, so essential.

It might be the time for us to attend to Agnes Varda, whose imagination was matched by her compassion. She has so much to offer us in a time like this.

Perhaps this is just the time for Cléo from 5 to 7.

So… is this going to be a film review after all?

Yes. But for me, film reviews are rarely just an occasion to post notes about how I was “entertained.” They’re opportunities to reconsider the meaning of life, and then to return to that life with insight and hope.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Love is with me.

That may, in fact, be as good a synopsis of Cléo from 5 to 7 as I can offer.

So here we go.


 

Cléo from 5 to 7 invites us into the emotional turmoil of a French pop singer who, in the midst of her popularity and material success, is shaken by the possibility that her recent biopsy will reveal cancer. This sudden apprehension of her own mortality spoils her ordinary revelry in her rise to fame and fortune: She’s a glamorous star with a long line of rich suitors who fawn over her and make promises. She is gawked at — worshipped — wherever she goes. But who can enjoy such success if you know your days are numbered?

In its visually entrancing first hour, we follow Cleo (Corinne Marchand, radiant and funny) as she zigzags from one possible “escape” after another — dazzlingly choreographed scenes full of mirrors and window reflections, a world that represents her self-obsession and self-absorption, of appearances and illusions. But it’s also a world that seems designed to condition her to believe that appearance is everything. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive,” she says, and the men cat-calling her seem to agree. At times she seems distracted and even annoyed by the constant attention of strangers. But when her fears agitate her, she’ll walk into a busy cafe and set the jukebox to playing one of her songs as if eager for people to remind her of her own importance.

Everywhere she turns, she’s encouraged to answer “I am!” as that fairy-tale curse whispers “Mirror, Mirror on the wall… who’s the fairest…?

 

The times you’re living in determine the movie that you see.

And as I watched Cléo from 5 to 7 wrestling with her dread of a deadly diagnosis, I thought about how timely it seemed. Right now, it feels like society has split in two — there are those burdened by the sense that their world has been cursed with a terminal diagnosis, and there are those living in denial and carrying on as if they’re someone invulnerable.

I also thought crowds — about proximity. Cancer isn’t contagious, but the poisons of vanity and materialism are. And as Cléo moves down crowded Parisian sidewalks, meanders through crowded restaurants, rides on crowded streetcars, I couldn’t help but squirm. Death can visit us as an insidious tumor swelling secretly within one person in a public place, quietly poisoning their bones. It can also travel on the air, in a breath or in a spoken word, from one person to thousands in a matter of minutes. It can fester in the fears that come when a person has faith only in themselves.

In a world of such dire threats, how is one to sustain any kind of happiness — or ever discover joy? Cléo is trying and failing to find some kind of peace.

This was my first time seeing Cléo from 5 to 7 — so far, when it comes to the great Agnes Varda, I’ve only seen her documentaries. (The Gleaners and I is on my short list of all-time favorite films.) And this film is absolutely gorgeous. I understand why it’s revered as a cinematic miracle Its cinematography and public-place choreography are constantly surprising and dizzyingly agile — somehow fantastical, poetic, and realistic all at once.

I ultimately enjoyed it more for its celebration of Paris more than for Marchand’s glamorous turn.

I suspect that there was a lot of this film in director Wim Wenders’s mind when he made Wings of Desire: So many moments drift past in which we hear snatches of intimate conversations between strangers, fleeting moments that enrich this portrait of a city that is both in love with itself and questioning (against in the historical context of the horrific Algerian War) whether everything is meaningless. One particular sequence involving a taxi driver had me wondering if it was Wenders’s inspiration for the Wings of Desire episode in which a Berlin taxi driver philosophizes about how his world has become so subdivided that every person is their own “state,” borders and passports and all. The reality of the war hangs over this Paris like a dark cloud, and I can feel Wenders watching and thinking “I need to do this, but with Berlin. And it needs to be even more intimate. I need to hear the thoughts of the lonely and isolated.”

If it seems like I’m straying from the film’s narrative focus, I am.

With this first viewing, I’m far more enchanted by the first hour than with the rest of the film, which seems to suggest that if Cléo will only take her eyes off of herself and her mortality and, like a good Parisian, fall in love then everything will be fine. The last act’s meet-cute is fine, and the relationship it sparks has some potential. I understand the thematic significance of Cléo slowly warming to the smooth-talking sailor who ships out to another meaningless tour in the morning. There’s truth in the fact that joy comes when we forget ourselves and turn our attention to others.

But that unexpected romance doesn’t move me as much as the opening scenes of Cléo dashing about town with her charming and observant friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck). I found myself hoping that Varda might follow both women for the duration, allowing the contrast between Dorothée’s evident contentment (and, yes, joy) and Cleo’s vanity to develop further. The conclusion we get feels slight, too trite to serve as a meaningful resolution of the first hour’s earnest questions about the corrosive effects of glamour and the emptiness of celebrity.

But take my disappointment with a grain of salt: This is just my first journey through a masterpiece, and I’ve learned from experience with Varda that her films need more than one look. I have so much confidence in Varda — her spirit of curiosity and compassion speaks to me unlike any other filmmaker’s.


And so, I come away from Cléo from 5 to 7 thinking about how so many of my friends, so many of my fellow Americans, are discovering, like Cléo, that there’s nothing like a reminder of our fragility and mortality to impress upon us what really matters.

I want to learn how to respond to death’s daunting demonstrations with fearlessness and love. It will seem like foolishness to most of the world, but in my better moments, I really do believe it: I need not fear as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

And what is this season, if not a time when humankind as a global community passes through that valley? In the shadow, some will be taken, some will be left behind — as in the story of the Great Flood.

But this is not a story of the wicked being punished with death and the good being blessed with survival. The cosmos, I believe, belong to Love. And thus, Love will ultimately take every evil and refashion it toward an ultimate good: a grander story of redemption and rebirth. It’s a bigger kind of Love than the sort one finds striking sparks with a stranger on a walk through the park in Paris. It’s a Love that will bear us through and reveal that death was but a shadow in a valley, and that there was life in it, through it, and beyond it.

The unfathomable loss of lives to COVID-19 might make some decide that writing about movies is foolishness. But it is within the experience of art that I can catch a glimpse of how a season of hardship can become a testimony of truth. And truth is redemptive in all of its forms — whether it come expressed as an inspirational tale, as a blast of righteous anger, or as a heavy-hearted song of lament. When the world I’m in seems out of control and hurtling toward destruction, I can attend to a picture, a song, a symphony, or cinema, and find purpose in dissonance, even as the characters within it are unable to transcend their own story to discover the meaning evident to us.

As I walk through Paris, and through “the valley,” with Cléo and Dorothée, I remember what matters, and I am saved.

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