Masculine vs. Feminine Gaze upon Paris: Threats and Transformations in the City from Godard’s À bout de souffle and Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

Masculine vs. Feminine Gaze upon Paris: Threats and Transformations in the City from Godard’s À bout de souffle and Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

Many French New Wave directors depicted the city of Paris in their films, where scenes were shot mainly on the Parisian streets and in specific areas of France’s capital. Paris served as a hub for political affairs, a movement to modernity connecting the country with the rest of the Western world, and a place for the writers of Cahier du Cinéma to live and to discuss film. Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard both use the city of Paris as the setting for their films Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962) and À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), one a female’s gaze on the dark reality of lives in Paris and the other a male director’s gaze toward the exaggeration of crime and danger in the same city. The lead female characters in both films, Cléo and Patricia, undergo personal philosophical changes. Varda transforms the character Cléo from self-obsessed to curious and independent as she interacts with the culture and the people of Paris; at times, the camera becomes Cléo’s gaze, allowing a female perspective to dominate the film. On the other hand, through a male gaze, Godard tells the story of a news reporter Patricia from her lover Michel’s perspective as he longs for her; she is an American outsider trying to understand Parisian life. Godard wants to make Paris into the crime cinema from Hollywood, dangerous in its energy and masculine in its outlook, while Varda wants to create the city’s danger through a realistic perspective of the space, following her female character through her path across the city. But both use the urban space as an active, and sometimes threatening, participant in the self-discoveries of their two female characters.

As the preferred setting for most French films, Paris creates a metropolitan, modern atmosphere for stories to unfold. Directors of the New Wave decided to shoot outside on the streets to create an interactive, open-air studio for their films.[1] Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard both use Paris’ outdoor spaces in their films, but they present the streets in entirely different ways. Varda’s approach uses a documentary style to the fictional narrative. Throughout the ninety-minute film, Cléo treks from one side of Paris to the other, capturing over forty-eight locations.[2] Varda’s realistic interpretation follows Cléo in relatively real time as she walks, takes taxis, drives, and even rides a bus across Paris, meeting people along her journey. Steven Ungar states, “Varda anchored this mix of measured and subjective time in the geography of Paris with an attention to spatial detail that was close to topographic”.[3] The measured time is depicted by Varda’s mapped-out transitions from one location to the next, showing diegetic clocks (Figure 1) and credited title sequences with time intervals; the subjective time deals with Cléo’s interpretations of what she sees, usually involving reminders of illness. Further Ungar argues, “Cléo’s anxiety sharpens her attentiveness to objects and messages she links to illness and death….[she is] at odds with a human and spatial environment she takes to be threatening”.[4] The first time we see Cléo, Varda cuts quickly from the tarot card reader to a close up of Cléo’s face as she responds “yes” to being ill; the striking cut highlights the urgency and attention she gives to her cancer diagnosis. The song that sparks her walk into the streets of Paris is about decaying bodies and loneliness. She responds negatively to a street performer hurting his body, observes people growing into old age, and yells at Antoine when he talks about the astrological sign cancer. Paris is not just a realistic backdrop but also a subjective response to Cléo’s mind.

Conversely, Godard captures a rapid, dangerous pace of Paris through contrasting jump-cuts and long-takes. The jump-cuts in À bout de souffle leave out information and disorient the space and timing in the narrative. Unlike in Cléo with taxi sequences gathering every part of the journey and conversation, Godard’s film cuts away bits and pieces of the journey. The whole narrative is fragmented and spontaneous; the actors even commented on being discouraged because Godard seemed to improvise all his [shooting] decisions.[5] However, his uncalculated approach emphasizes the rush of city life and playful danger of Michel’s lifestyle of crime. The film confuses us from the beginning, starting with a close up of a magazine Paris Flirt and a pinup girl; Godard links Michel directly to Paris, even though he is actually in Marseilles. It refuses to place us in Marseilles, except a brief glimpse at Notre Dame de la Garde, which, by name, alludes to a famous Parisian landmark. The second sequence on the Route Nationale 7 uses jump cuts that disturb spatial and temporal continuity but allow Michel’s travel to progress quickly, to speed the narrative toward Paris.[6] This contrasts the long-takes Godard uses to document the city. “It is not just Michel and Patricia who are the focus of attention in the Paris street long take…but also the genuine passers-by, some of whom stare quizzically into the camera”.[7] Therefore, the long-takes let us gaze onto Godard’s documentation of Paris. The tracking shots on the Champ-Elysées, which capture busy street life, and the shots of Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, which are unnecessary for plot development, show Godard’s attraction to preserving the city through film.[8] Varda’s approach lets us emerge ourselves in Cléo’s world, whereas Godard’s pushes us to stay attentive to a disjunctive narrative time and space; both, however, want to show us life in Paris.

Godard’s jump-cuts also signify the disconnection between Michel and Patricia, thus representing the misunderstanding of the female under a male gaze. Typically, Paris has been seen through a masculine perspective, both by directors and characters.[9] À bout de soufflé is an example of what Brigitte Rollet calls a “gendered version of the city”.[10] Though Patricia becomes a femme fatale-esque character, leading Michel to his death, she does not use sex to drive him there; he says he loves her, but Patricia does not know what she wants. Mulvey and MacCabe identify that “women in Godard’s films are only ever portrayed in terms of their sexuality”.[11] Thus because they are examined from a masculine point of view, their desires are not known and they cannot make up their minds. For instance, as Michel drives Patricia to her lunch meeting, he discusses the areas they pass and comments on her “pretty” features; but as soon as she tries to talk about her feelings for him, Godard triggers his jump-cuts. Patricia’s desires are misunderstood by Michel and by us. Furthermore, Godard depicts Paris as a feminine entity defined by its physical features. He shows Parisian landmarks before cutting to shots of Patricia (Figures 2&3); the camera pans left to right as it gazes at the Eiffel Tower, then it pans the same way as Patricia exits the tram. Later in the film, Michel drives by a modern building and states, “look at that eyesore…Buildings like that get me down…I have a feeling for beauty, beautiful.” Beautiful refers to Patricia and the buildings. Thus Godard pairs Michel’s masculine gaze upon Patricia with his gaze upon the city.

Varda, however, offers a female gaze of Paris. Men look at Cléo; as Ungar notes, “the sight of a woman walking alone often held a distinct sexual charge”.[12] A man in le Dôme Café hits on Cléo, another makes a move on a single woman riding the bus by talking about Paris, and even Antoine appears threatening at first. But the difference from Godard’s portrayal lies in that Varda articulates the female’s desire, and any outside advances become threats. She counteracts the normative idea that “non-domestic spaces are not places for decent women”[13] by turning the flâneur, male walker strolling aimlessly whilst looking around him, into a flâneuse, a female who travels from one side of Paris to the other and transforms into an independent woman of the city.[14] Stylistically, Varda often substitutes Cléo’s gaze for the camera position by a point of view shot, eyelevel with passers-by as they look back at her.[15] Varda’s screen directions even point out the importance of Cléo’s interaction with the city; “Cléo walks forthrightly. She looks. And her curiosity gives others importance”.[16] In the first half of the film, Cléo is typically in the center of frame, wearing a boldly patterned dress, staring at her own reflection, and fragmented from the people around her; “she is the focal point of all eyes”.[17] In the first café scene, a couple beside her talks about sex, but Cléo is cut away from them by the straight edge of a mirror (Figure 4); she stays unaware and unwilling to interact with the world around her. Her desires are unknown. But in the second half, Varda transforms the perspective to her viewpoint or shuffles Cléo into the crowd.[18] We hear her inner thoughts, we see her fears and desires, and we watch her interact with life in Paris.

According to Nicoleta Bazgan, women especially connect to the urban environment “to the point that they become icons of the city”.[19] In other words, while women interact with the city, they become symbols of the life and culture surrounding them from their looks, mannerisms, and relationships. In À bout de souffle, though Patricia is from the United States, she usually speaks in French and tries to exert herself into the actions of the city. Her job as a reporter relies upon the news of Paris, and she has to interact with Parisians both romantically with Michel and professionally with the New-York Tribune. But Bazgan furthers her point by stating, “Paris is ‘misrecognized’ as a woman” in that the act of star-gazing closely resembles sight-seeing.[20] Godard uses this in his portrayal of Patricia, seen in editing scenes of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame between shots of Michel looking at her. The scenes of Paris icons do not flow with the narrative, leaving us confused as to what they signify; they then lead to close-ups of Patricia, whom Godard displays as an enigma within the male gaze. Varda begins Cléo similarly, allowing the character to be defined by the thoughts of others and by her own obsession with staring at her reflection. Parisian life around her remains a mystery, since she solely focuses on herself. But the “woman-as-spectacle [Cléo] becomes transformed into an active social participant…appropriating the gaze for herself in a new appreciation of other in the world around her”.[21] Cléo takes control and explores Paris on her terms. So unlike Godard, who always keeps Patricia and Paris as outsiders to the male gaze, Varda returns Cléo’s gaze back toward Paris.

Furthermore, the relationship between female and city goes both ways; the city also reflects the character. We see Cléo partake in a walk along Parisian streets. According to Janice Mouton, “the city’s ‘sensory streets,’ vital and dynamic with their mix of people, [focus] our attention…on the city as much as on the woman”.[22] Though Mouton is referring to the second half of the film, Varda does pay close attention to details in presenting both Cléo’s ignorance of Paris and her involvement with the city. When she buys her hat, the streets of Paris project as reflections on a window, distanced from her awareness (Figure 5); but observing a diverse group of Parisians in le Dôme Café shows Cléo’s interaction with Paris. The café scene plays more like “a short documentary on the people who frequent the café Dôme and the quarter. We see them with her, faces in the street, serious, closed in on themselves, mysterious or preoccupied”.[23]Quick cuts and panning through different conversations emphasize the variety of people dwelling in Paris; they talk about life, love, death, art and the city. For the first time, Cléo looks away from her reflection in mirrors and focuses on her environment. She notices everything, except herself, and she responds to the visual, aural, and intellectual world around her. Cléo is a flâneuse, wandering Paris;[24] thus she and the city interrelate with each other.

On the other hand, Patricia, the outsider, has trouble connecting with Paris. Godard does not deny his inspirations from Hollywood, and film noir techniques scatter throughout À bout de souffle. What’s more, Patricia is a modern, independent American; she is an outsider amongst Parisians. Throughout the film, she “hawks this quintessentially American point of view with a classically American accent”,[25] distancing her from the other characters and from our empathy. Michel also represents a foreign entity, the classic American gangster; “he ends up being essentially American”.[26] Godard parallels Michel with Humphrey Bogart by his appearance, a poster in a window, and the mannerism of swiping his lips with his thumb.[27] Michel is reckless and always on the move, but Patricia is often waiting for Michel or sitting passively. However, “from the moment she discovers that Michel is wanted by the police, she begins to move”.[28] Bazgan argues that the Parisian female and the city have urban mobility in common.[29] In other words, Patricia’s movement in Paris, either running from the police or running towards Michel in the street, signifies her change from an indecisive woman to a modern femme fatale; she gains power from moving through the streets.

With Patricia’s power comes change. Valerie Orpen defines the close-up of Patricia outside the Montparnasse café, when Michel finally finds the other criminal who owes him money, as the turning point. It emphasizes her “role as a mere listener”.[30] Michel and the other criminals do not want a foreigner’s help, but the “notion of individuality and of forthrightness is as American as the movies”.[31] Patricia loves art and literature, but she surrounds herself with thugs and uneducated men; it is only after her realization at the café that she decides to be independent of them and to stop pleasing them.[32] At the airport interview, Parvuleso says that the “American woman dominates the man; the French woman does not dominate him yet”. Giving Michel away to the police, Patricia decides to give up her masquerade of a Parisian to finally accept her outsider position as an American in Paris.

In addition, we observe her transformation from an outside perspective, since the close-up gives no insight as to what Patricia will do next. She appears finally to make up her mind, but she gives no indication of what the decision will be. Unlike our understanding of Cléo, we still view Patricia’s desires as mysterious until she calls the police on Michel. So although À bout de souffle opens on the male character reading a paper, it closes on the female, staring directly into the camera before turning around. Again, we see a close-up of Patricia, and her intentions have finally been revealed. Bazgan claims that “since Paris is a woman, its feminine cityscape will be alluringly dangerous”.[33] In Godard’s film, Michel spends most of him time gazing at Patricia, following her around Paris with shot-reverse-shots showing his obsession with her (Figure 6&7). And it is the woman who instigates the lead character’s death. When talking about death in American cinema, Kline states, “In the panic of the heart, the slightest gesture reveals certain knowledge and, all at once, hatred, repentance, mockery and courage”.[34] Kline extends that with Godard superimposing American qualities, in cinema and stereotypical personalities, on the French landscape. Patricia’s look into the camera and her mockery of Michel’s (and Bogart’s) lip movement imply she has chosen to be American, but she forces Michel’s downfall because she does not want to leave Paris.

Both films look at death through character’s interactions with the city. Like its overall hectic nature, À bout de souffle plays with death. It is a decision the lead characters make, and Michel takes responsibility for his choices by not fleeing when Patricia tells him she has called the police.[35] Through the whole film, the couple plays games with each other; Godard’s over-dramatization of the death scene as Michel totters over and Patricia runs toward him references the games they have played before. There is also publicity to his death; he dies out in the streets of Paris, linking urban life to the fatal dangers of crime.

In contrast, Varda captures the dark realism of death. “Cleo’s anxiety sharpens her attentiveness to objects and messages she links to illness…[she is] at odds with a human and spatial environment she takes to be threatening”.[36] No character dies, but Cléo and Antoine walk off-screen together, one diagnosed with cancer and the other going to war, immanent of death. In Morrissey’s article, Elizabeth Wilson takes the wandering woman or flâneuse as an intermediate stage not a final result.[37] Relating to Cléo, Varda haunts the mise-en-scène of Paris with the Algerian War. Cléo ignores the war when soldiers pass by the hat shop (Figure 8) and when the radio mentions it; however, through her transition at the café, she hears a conversation about it, and later she observes soldiers by the train station with Dorothée. This leads to her relations with Antoine and transfers her from distance to understanding; the shots equally focus on both characters, and first title card pairs two individuals together. Cléo finally faces death around her instead of running from it. On making Cléo, Varda comments, “What did Paris evoke for me? A vague fear of the big city and its dangers, of getting lost in it alone and misunderstood”.[38] Therefore, she creates a journey of which the city life transforms Cléo from object to a participant of the city whilst she waits for a life-changing diagnosis.[39] In conclusion, Paris’ surroundings enable both Cléo and Patricia to become independents through a transformative force in its urban streets.

Typically, women in Paris films are seen as accessories to the plot. They become parts of the scenery, since the male gaze looks at them in the same way it would landscapes. Though Jean-Luc Godard still uses the male gaze, his female character transforms from passive to active through her journey around Paris. Even though he pairs her with the Eiffel Tower and other architectural structures, he propels her into the streets to define herself within it. Conversely, Agnès Varda takes a feminine gaze through her character Cléo as she faces a traumatic turning point in her life. Cléo uses the city around her to gain empathy and insight, so that she can become aware of the world and of the illness she will immanently face. Varda shows Paris’ realism, while Godard plays with Hollywood techniques in a Parisian setting. However, both directors chose to offer a documentary perspective of the city they admire, whilst letting it transform their characters from passive spectacles to active participants within the city.




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[1] Brigitte Rollet, “Paris nous appartient: flânerie in Paris and film,” Film Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2008): 47.

[2] Steven Ungar, Cléo de 5 à 7 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 36-7.

[3] Ungar, 34.

[4] Ungar, 35.

[5] Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002): 210-13.

[6] Valerie Orpen, Film Editing, the Art of the Expressive (New York: Wallflower Press, 2003), 64.

[7] Orpen, 82.

[8] Orpen, 82-3.

[9] Rollet, 48.

[10] Rollet, 48-9.

[11] Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 10-11.

[12] Ungar, 92.

[13] Rollet, 48.

[14] Rollet, 48-9.

[15] Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 274.

[16] Flitterman-Lewis, 274.

[17] Flitterman-Lewis, 274.

[18] Alison Smith, Agnès Varda (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 98.

[19] Nicoleta Bazgan, “Female bodies in Paris: iconic urban femininity and Parisian journeys,” Studies in French Cinema 10, no. 2 (2010): 96.

[20] Bazgan, 96-7 & 108.

[21] Flitterman-Lewis, 268.

[22] Janice Mouton, “From Feminine Masquerade to Flâneuse: Agnès Varda’s Cléo in the City,” Cinema Journal 40, no. 2 (2001): 3.

[23] Filtterman-Lewis, 274.

[24] Mouton, 9-11.

[25] T. Jefferson Kline, Screening the Text, Intertextuality in the New Wave French Cinema (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 198.

[26] Kline, 200.

[27] Orpen, 67-72.

[28] Orpen, 80-1.

[29] Bazgan, 96-7.

[30] Orpen, 68.

[31] Kline, 193.

[32] Neupert, 214.

[33] Bazgan, 103.

[34] Kline, 193.

[35] Morrey, 12.

[36] Ungar, 35.

[37] Jim Morrissey, “Paris and voyages of self-discovery in Cléo de 5 à 7 and Le Pabuleux destin d’ Amélie Poulain,Studies in French Cinema 8, no. 2 (2008): 102-3.

[38] Smith, 61.

[39] Mouton, 9.

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