As Slant puts it, "Photographer-turned-director Agnes Varda is considered the archetypal girl who crashed the big boys' clubhouse, and Cléo from 5 to 7 was the film that paid her membership fee."
Florence Victoire a.k.a. Cleo is a young singer whose career has recently taken off. She has just been told she might have cancer and is anxiously awaiting her biopsy results, which she will get at 7 PM. She visits a Fortune Teller, whose tarot reading increases her fears rather than reassuring her. She then goes to a café with her maid, and then to her luxurious apartment where she receives the visit of her lover, a wealthy older man, and later of her two songwriters. She goes back out and picks up her friend, who works as a nude model in a sculpture workshop. They go to a cinema where they watch a short silent film from the projectionist's room. After they part, she goes to Parc Montsouris, where she's chatted up by a talkative but pleasantly earnest soldier whose leave is about to end. He accompanies her to the hospital where she picks up her inconclusive biopsy results. And that's it.
The film develops several themes: The fear of death, the possibility of living a meaningful life, the relations between human beings, the perception of women. But it is also a quasi-documentary depiction of Paris in the early 1960s.
Contains examples of:
- Bittersweet Ending: The story ends with the doctor prescribing two months of radiation, and Cleo declares that for the first time she doesn't feel afraid.
- Brainless Beauty: This is how most people perceive Cleo, and the audience's challenge is to see beyond the stereotype without Cleo herself making it any easier with her flighty, self-absorbed attitude.
- The Cameo: Jean-Luc Godard (in a rare appearance without his trademark sunglasses), a friend of Varda's, and Anna Karina appear in the silent film sequence.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The entire film is in black and white, except the opening scene.
- Droste Image: Produced Citizen Kane style when Cleo walks between two opposing mirrors.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: There's Cleo, and we're going to be in her company from 5 to 7 p.m.
- Foreshadowing: The film is peppered with symbolic references to death, such as the words "Deuil" (mourning) and "Pompes funèbres" (funeral parlor) appearing in the background, a mirror breaking and Cleo's black dress.
- Fortune Teller: Her tarot reading at the beginning of the movie is the only scene shot in color. Of course she draws the Death card.
- Gay Paree: Displayed in a naturalistic way. To quote the Slant review again: "Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early '60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard's Breathless."
- Heel Realization: Cleo realizes her selfishness and learns to be braver when meeting a soldier who's due to return to Algiers.
- Innocent Fanservice Girl: Cleo's friend is completely unselfconscious about posing nude for a whole room of mostly male sculptors.
- No Plot? No Problem!: The whole plot is basically just 2 hours in the life of a young singer waiting for medical test results.
- Orbital Shot: A slow camera turn lasting a good 40 seconds around Cleo's head as she tries on a hat.
- Out-of-Genre Experience: The naturalistic Slice of Life narrative is interspersed in its middle part by a song number.
- Real Time: In theory, at least: The film is called Cléo from 5 to 7, and it follows Cleo over about 100 minutes, as the exact time stamps on the chapters show. But the plausibility of real time is stretched on occasion, like in the scene where she's rehearing her song, and she takes about two seconds to change from a white nightie into a black dress. When one considers all that Cleo does over the course of the movie—visit a tarot reader, try on hats, rehearse a song, meet her lover, hang out with her model friend, watch a short film, walk in a park, strike up an acquaintance with a soldier, go back to the hospital, get her diagnosis—it does strain credibility that everything could happen in an hour and a half.
- Repeat Cut: On a dazed Cleo's face as she walks down the stairs after a most disturbing tarot reading.
- Show Within the Show: The movie within the movie, an odd little silent film that Cleo and her friend watch that is done In-Universe in a Retraux 1920s style.
- Shout-Out: The silent movie is a reference to the films of Buster Keaton. A poster for the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou is also visible in the background at one point. Elmer Gantry is advertised on a theater marquee.
- Splash of Color: The shots of the fortune teller's table—the table, the cards, the hands of Cleo and the fortune teller—are in color. Everything else is black and white.
- Slice of Life: Not quite two hours in the life of a young woman who is stressing over a doctor's test.
- Tarot Troubles: Well naturally Cleo draws the Death card.