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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Time is Not Created Equal: A Comparative Analysis on the Use of Time in Cléo de 5 à 7 and Ni na bian

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

What is time? Throughout history, it has been characterized as many things: an illusion, a construct, something quantitative, something relative, something infinite. Regardless of its exact rules and definition, time and the idea of time have existed at the forefront of human existence. For this reason, it is no surprise that time as a device and theme remains a staple in filmmaking. That being said, time—however one may define it—is not always equal in cinema. As illustrated in Agnès Varda’s 1962 film, Cléo de 5 à 7, and Tsai Ming-Liang's 2001 Ni na bian ji dian, time manifests itself differently depending on the lives, locations, and circumstances of those who experience it. In Cléo de 5 à 7, a limited sense of time creates a dire need for self-reflection that ultimately brings its protagonist closer to herself. Alternatively, the slow pacing of Ni na bian ji dian produces the mirage of infinite time and, in so doing, isolates its characters from themselves, each other, and the world around them. When analyzed side by side, the two films serve as a masterclass on the manipulation of time in cinema and in the drastic differences in atmosphere, feeling, and story that can be created through pacing, technical choices, and mise en scène.

Time in Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 plays a significant role in the film’s overall ability to tell an impactful story about life, death, and legacy. Throughout the entirety of the film, both Cleo and viewers are forced to grapple with an impending sense of doom — the overwhelming and terrifying realization where she may soon be out of time. This sense of urgency around time is constructed through the film’s plot as Cleo suspects that she is ill with cancer and is awaiting test results from her doctor to confirm her suspicion, but also through Varda’s decision to present the film in ‘real-time’. The decision to allow the film to play out in real-time contributes heavily to the sense of limited time. This feeling of real-time is created through the title of the film and the recurring time cards that appear throughout the duration of the text, which detail the exact time of Cleo’s day. When examined closely, these elements create an overwhelming feeling of an increasingly faster clock. For starters, the film is titled Cléo de 5 à 7. With this title, Varda tells viewers that the film follows two hours of Cleo’s life in real-time. Nevertheless, the film has a running time of only one hour and a half. This discrepancy between what is promised in the film’s title and the reality of text is a manipulation of time, or more specifically, a shrinking of time. The literal shrinking of time is also exercised through the placement of time cards throughout the film. The fifth time card of the film, titled “Chapitre V CLÉO de 17h. 25 á 17h. 31” occurs at the twenty-five minutes and twenty-nine seconds mark of the film. Although the chapters have appeared in chronological order up until this point, something changes with the next time card. The sixth time card, titled “Chapitre X RAOUL de 18h. á 18h. 04” occurs near the one-hour mark of the film. Varda has skipped over the announcement of four chapters of Cleo’s day. This sudden jump from Chapter Five to Chapter Ten has a psychological effect on the way viewers perceive time in the film. It takes away our leverage in understanding and conceptualizing the events in Cleo’s day and reveals a different reality: an existence in which we do not have the power to control the passing of time. This intentional technical inconsistency is there to produce a sense of condensed and accelerated time which connects to our feelings about life and death.

The story itself is also a feature that strongly contributes to the limited sense of time in Cléo de 5 à 7. This accelerated reality is most clearly displayed in the opening scene of the film. In the opening sequence, both image and sound are utilized to metaphorically shrink Cleo’s lifespan and propose the threat of imminent death. The scene opens with the camera overlooking a table. The table, which is presented in vivid color, is the location of a tarot card reading. For the first three minutes of the film, neither of the characters’ faces is shown on screen. The majority of the reading is depicted only through the use of cards and the voice of the psychic. On screen, appear orderly rows of cards and the details of Cleo’s life being read aloud. Her entire life has been shrunk to fit a screen and is effortlessly summarized by the psychic in a matter of minutes. In this scene, the years of Cleo’s life have been compressed to fit a small table. Her entire existence feels small, arbitrary. We get a sense that her life can end just as easily as it can be summed up. Though the cards suggest an illness, the real threat to Cleo’s life comes from an auditory source. Behind the voices of the two women is the constant whisper of a ticking clock. Fast paced and unchanging, this dreadful sound is there to remind viewers of the fragile nature of life. Time is clicking for Cleo — literally. While these aspects of the film appear gloomy and pessimistic, the threat of death and the paranoia of limited time are what enable Cleo to reflect on her life. The possibility of illness brings clarity to Cleo and allows her to stand up against expectations that do not serve her well being and people who do not truly see her. In Cléo de 5 à 7, a sense of finite existence provokes a search for happiness outside of superficial constructs.

In contrast, a notion of never-ending time in Ni na bian ji dian produces a reversed effect. As suggested from the English title, What Time Is It There?, time plays a significant role in the film. Through narrative pacing, imagery, and story Tsai Ming-Liang successfully creates a feeling of infinite time. Upon watching Ni na bian ji dian, one notices that its pacing is incredibly slow. This is mostly attributed to the film’s lack of dialogue, lack of sound, and lack of action. It is a quiet film that, when watched by audiences who are more accustomed to the quick pace of Hollywood movies, can appear to drag on forever. An example of this slow pacing in the film can be seen just six minutes in. The camera cuts from a scene in which protagonist Kang and his family are shown praying to a pitch-black screen. The film is completely dark and the sound of prayer goes silent. After a few seconds, a door opens slowly and a hallway is revealed. Silently, the static camera watches the still hallway for twenty seconds. It is not until thirty-five seconds later that Kang appears and there is finally movement on screen. Although this sequence takes place in just under a minute, the lack of motion and sound on screen give the illusion that time is passing at a much slower rate. A scene that is less than a minute in length appears to take a few minutes to play out. The slow pace produces a sort of anxiousness and longing. The lack of narrative progression leaves the viewer aching for some sort of excitement to happen, but our desire for action or faster story advancement is never fulfilled.

While Cleo from 5 to 7 appears to shorten time, Ni na bian ji dian stretches it out until it becomes almost unbearable. Intertwined with the viewing experience of prolonged time is the notion of unlimited time. The film makes a point of noting that there is a time in Paris, a different time in Taipei, and therefore different time in other places around the world, which suggests the chance for endless time possibilities. While Cleo has a shortage of time, Kang is facing an overwhelming abundance of it. This concept of infinite time is illustrated through imagery of multiple clocks near the twenty-minute mark of the film. In this scene, Kang visits a local shop to presumably buy more watches for his street vending business. As he speaks to the owner of the store, the two men are surrounded by clocks. There are clocks hanging over their heads, clocks sitting on counters, and dozens of watches scattered just under them. The clocks are all different shapes, sizes, and designs. This imagery, again, suggests the possession of a time that is never-ending, overflowing. The dialogue itself is something that backs this reading. In the film, there is a lot of discussion of reincarnation. The idea that one has more lives after death is the reason Kang and the other characters live life so passively. With an infinite amount of time, why would one rush to do anything? This unmotivated outlook on life isolates Kang from being able to come to terms with the death of his father, connect with his mother, and deepen his understanding of himself.

A comparative analysis of Cléo de 5 à 7 and Ni na bian ji dian highlights the power of narrative pacing, technical choices, and mise en scène in relation to time and cinema. These films are excellent case studies of a filmmaker’s ability to warp our sense of time and alter reality for the duration of a film.

Works Cited

Tsai, Ming-liang, director. Ni na bian ji dian. Arena Films, Homegreen Films, 2001.

Varda, Agnès, director. Cléo de 5 à 7. Ciné Tamaris, Rome Paris Films, 1962.


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