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  • Clarissa and Cléo (En)durée Suicidal Time in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7
  • Pam Fox Kuhlken (bio)

Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Agnès Varda’s 1961 film, Cléo de 5 à 7 [Cléo from 5 to 7] are more than texts by women about women set in a single day. Although to date they have not been critically examined together, Mrs. Dalloway and Cléo de 5 à 7 are complementary texts that share an uncanny preoccupation with aspects of temporality. This analysis will draw upon the objective, physical models of time conceived by Julia Kristeva as le temps des hommes [men’s time] and by Henri Bergson as temps, concepts whose subjective, psychological antitheses are le temps des femmes [women’s time] (Kristeva) and durée (Bergson). Once the respective protagonists of Mrs. Dalloway and Cléo de 5 à 7, Clarissa and Cléo, recognize their complicity in a false representation of narrative history, temps, and men’s time, additionally—and more alarmingly so for these blithe women—durée and women’s time are exposed as reassuring, but suicidal, fictions.

Progressing from objectivity toward subjectivity, each woman faces a crisis and undergoes a profound transformation. With the introduction of a male counterpart alongside the female protagonists, Clarissa and Cléo discover that infinity encompasses death as the necessary, liberating denouement of an odyssey through the present into unchartable and extra-subjective space and time. Once initiated, the audience is invited to escape suicidal temps and men’s time, and to pass through durée or women’s time in order to experience an apotheosis of a hybrid—androgynous time—that is signified post-denouement, off-page, or off-screen in an aesthetic black hole conjured into extra-textual existence. [End Page 341]

Public Private Time

On a single day, two women join the deadly rush of life on the streets of London and Paris and experience a lifetime: the culmination of their biographies in the autobiographical present. In Virginia Woolf ’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway spends a June day primarily on the streets of London, whereas in Agnès Varda’s 1961 film, Cléo de 5 à 7, Cléo Victoire passes a late afternoon chiefly on the streets of Paris.1 While Cléo de 5 à 7 makes no direct allusion to Mrs. Dalloway, and although to date such an intertextuality has not received critical attention, a temporal preoccupation does connect the two diurnal texts written by women about women who intersect in a new temporal dimension.2 Woolf ’s compressed narrative spans eighteen hours, and instead of chapter or section divisions, uses eight space breaks on the following pages: 14, 29, 48, 56, 58, 64, 151, 165. Cléo de 5 à 7, with its ninety-minute running time and two-hour diegetic time, is subdivided by thirteen chapter headings.

Clarissa, a 52-year old London socialite and diplomat’s wife, is the prim, senior Doppelgänger of Cléo, the younger, unwed Parisian pop singer with three minor hit songs to her credit. Although created almost forty years apart—one modern, one Nouvelle Vague [French New Wave]—and regardless of any generational or social gap between characters—one a bourgeois housewife in a gentrified neighborhood and the other an avant-garde young femme fatale in a downtown studio—Clarissa Dalloway and Cléo Victoire are synchronous characters who probe an extra-subjective time and space in their historical contexts. They exhume a temporality that envelops public spaces with the humble artistry of domesticity and the integrity of personal vision, creating private time and eluding men’s time by way of flânerie on the streets of London and Paris.

In Cléo de 5 à 7, it is not only the title but also clocks that are pervasive reminders of the objective shadow inseparable from subjective time.3 Betsy Ann Bogart’s dissertation in part traces the visual images of clocks in Cléo de 5 à 7: “their ticking and chiming fills the soundtrack, reinforcing the theme of the passing of objective time” (240). Cléo’s apartment has a...