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                                                        Flickhead
Cinema Considerations
By Irene Dobson

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Corinne Marchand in Cléo de 5 à 7

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Sisters of Mourning

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    I watched Cléo de 5 à 7 recently on DVD and it made me jump! I was astonished by its similarity to Carnival of Souls, the little horror film which I have written about in the past. Why is this? Well, in Cléo de 5 à 7, Cléo, a singer on the rise who must await the result of a biopsy to see if she has a cancerous lump, wanders about Paris on a spring afternoon, talking to someone here, having a coffee there, and the camera follows this sad pilgrim through its lovely Montparnasse streets and parks. Agnés Varda’s film was released in 1962 and, like the French New Wave releases with which it is frequently mentioned in the history books, it was shot away from fusty studios in real places to catch a slice of contemporary life. In her little book on Cléo, Valerie Orpen quotes Betsy Ann Bogart on the use of synchronized sound: “Nearly every image has its corresponding sound, including the kittens meowing in Cléo’s apartment, chisels of art students working on sculptures in the studio, snatches of conversations from passersby, and birdsong and the waterfall in the Parc Montsouris.” Valerie goes on to say: “That said, some sounds are manipulated to express the character’s aural point-of-view, such as the heightened sound of footsteps or ticking clocks….”

    In my little piece on Carnival of Souls, I have already noticed the birdsong and the realistic toing-and-froing in the department store. I may have noticed too the manipulation of sound when the soundtrack stops, then starts again as we see the sun glinting in the trees and the birds resume their chorus. Valerie writes: “Cléo de 5 à 7 is memorable for its urban walking, particularly solitary female walking, which is unusual in itself.” In Carnival of Souls and in Cléo de 5 à 7 we have a young blonde woman wandering around in a daze, not quite knowing what she’s about, and meeting different people who talk to her but are unable to know what she is knowing and feel what she is feeling, so are unable to relate to her. In the department store in Carnival of Souls, Mary changes into a little black dress, while Cléo does exactly this after her rehearsal.

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Above, setting up a scene for Cléo de 5 à 7: Agnés Varda (seated),

cat handlers, and Corinne Marchand (reclining).
Below, Corinne walking the streets detached from reality. Click images to enlarge.

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    Both films involve women who wander close to Death without knowing it. Both star actresses who are blonde and they look like ‘blondes,’ not, as Varda realized, the quintessential bobbed New Wave girl (Karina), nor quite the pneumatic American blonde (Monroe) of the moment. But self-aware and statuesque girls who seem to rise above and perhaps comment on the blonde ambitions of 1962. (It is ironic that Marilyn died that year…) Both use sound in a particular way to express something of these girls’ emotional muddle. And both films were released in 1962.

    In his book Movie Mutations, Jonathan Rosenbaum has written of a phenomenon which he calls ‘global synchronicity’: “the simultaneous appearance of the same apparent taste, styles and/or themes in separate parts of the world, without any signs of these common and synchronous traits having influenced one another – all of which suggest a common global experience that has not been adequately identified.”

    My original article was called Marie de 7 à 7 and, when I wrote it in 2005, I had no real inkling of a relationship between Carnival of Souls and Cléo de 5 à 7. But I now realize that two very similar films appeared within months of each other. Did one influence the other? I doubt if this was historically possible. Did director Herk Harvey even know of Agnés Varda? I doubt it; she had only made a few small films and was not well-known in her native France, and Carnival of Souls was Herk’s only film.

    These seem to me to be good examples of ‘wandering’ films, films through which the heroine wanders for sure, but also films which ‘wander’ near to one another, sharing the same apparent tastes, style and themes without showing any signs of mutual influence or knowledge.

— Irene Dobson

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Candace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls

The following is Irene’s piece on Carnival of Souls, originally posted May 15, 2006 on the Flickhead blog:

Dance with a Spectre

    “Something separates me from other people,” says Mary in Carnival of Souls. It is the editing with its unconventional splitting of an action. When Mary dashes around the streets and the bus station, an action seems incomplete, say her walking towards a car seeking help or walking around the station. Only when Mary goes back to the disused fairground do the takes become more fluid, even if there is causal disjunction between her and the space she is in as gongs sound for no reason, a mattress glides down a slide.

    Carnival of Souls has a New Wavey look to it. It must be the improvised tone of the acting, the sudden shifts of perspective from high angle long shot to close-up in Mary’s first job, or those shots of places to which she feels she must go, zooms suggesting that the fairground pavilion and the mountains are landscapes of Mary’s unconscious perceived by her in innocuous places like the car wash. This would all seem to make sense as Carnival of Souls was released in 1962 when the French influence on low budget filmmaking must have been pronounced.

    Even more unusual is the debt Herk Harvey’s little film owed the experimental films of Maya Deren. Carnival of Souls is, like Deren’s At Land, exploring a woman’s odd odyssey like Mary’s from water to land. In At Land, Deren’s beautiful amphibian makes her progress from sea to land and back again, exploring her soul in a topographical way as Captain Ahab does in Moby Dick. Like in Carnival of Souls, the woman is the only unifying principle in At Land. We never see the landscape in its entirety and never when Deren is not there. The film is in thrall to Deren’s looks, where she looks and how she looks, and her curiosity, her own compulsion to reveal the strange universe of the film. As in all of At Land, Mary’s odyssey is without sound, and she too determines how we negotiate the funfair, and how we feel desire and curiosity before the image. She makes me feel like her, for her. As in At Land, I always want to be somewhere where I am not. Both films invite me to travel into, as well as over, the landscape, rather like the free association I find in my sleep. Deren herself said that At Land deals with the “inability to achieve a stable, adjusted relationship to (the world’s) elements.” Carnival of Souls too is about a woman who isn’t really there. Yet while the slippage can be felt in Mary negotiating the dilapidated and decaying pavilion, there are also moments, shots smuggled in, when something looks at her. Finally, we see her dancing with her suitor at the carousel. Maya Deren’s girl chases a chess pawn from place to place. Mary is the pawn, found at last.

—Irene Dobson