Cléo de 5 à 7TWITTER/DLACDI

A recent article in The New Yorker discusses how people in quarantine are relating more intensely to Clarissa Dalloway, protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925). The narrative, set over the course of one day in June, follows Clarissa’s perambulations through London. Enraptured by every detail of the city, she breathes life into its landscape in our imaginations. Set five years after the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed millions – and of which Clarissa was a survivor – the novel shows her renewed appreciation for London, as if she had never expected to see such sights again. For many people, this sense of uncertainty and apprehension is a familiar feeling at this moment in time.

I’ve been rewatching some films which are love letters to cities, chasing the same immersion which Mrs Dalloway creates so successfully. 

Woolf’s contemporary, Vita Sackville-West, wrote that she didn’t need to visit London in June anymore, as she felt that reading the novel had transported her there. Stuck at home and spending hours on end in my bedroom, I’ve been rewatching some films which are love letters to cities, chasing the same immersion which Mrs Dalloway creates so successfully. Paris, Moscow, Berlin, New York and more have come to life through the screen of my laptop, transporting me into the midst of a bustling urban landscape and allowing a refreshing break from the monotony of socially-distant life. In this article, I want to share four of my favourite representations of cities in cinema.

Tilda Butterworth

Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) situates us in Paris. We follow Cléo around the city for two hours, and observe how her apprehension about her cancer diagnosis prompts a haunting awareness of her own mortality. It is springtime, but the beauty of the city in transition is overshadowed by constant suggestions of illness and death. Like Clarissa in London, Cléo is nervous of some of the grimier aspects of the City of Light, but her exploration of a more liberated side of Paris begins to open her mind, and eventually we see in her a hopeful representation of someone who is coming to terms with the fear of mortality and learning to accept the imperfection of life. In Cléo’s tentative embracing of life’s unpredictability, we witness how the exposure to the unexpected and unknown which metropolitan life gives us is crucial to our perception of the world around us.

Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7TWITTER/FILMIN

Next, we move on to Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa, with Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). This Soviet-era silent documentary rejects any sense of narrative, and instead provides a chaotic representation of daily life in cities which function with the efficiency of machines. Each shot is perfectly composed and the camera is often static, so we are fully immersed in our observation. The quiet moments of contemplation are juxtaposed with overwhelming, dizzying experimental montage, and the film is full of surprising contrasts which emphasise the distinction between interior and exterior urban life. It reminds me of the way the population of the UK is currently divided – particularly by the new lockdown rules which widen the rift between those forced to return to work and those who have the luxury of continuing to socially distance from the safety of their homes. The film portrays factory and hospital workers in contrast with calm domestic scenes and, while there is no central narrative, these shots tell their own pertinent stories.

Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie CameraTWITTER/BFI

Continuing to celebrate the many sides of the metropolis, Léon: The Professional (dir. Luc Besson, 1994) finds beauty in chaos and ugliness in things which should be beautiful. We see New York predominantly through the eyes of a child, Mathilda, and, despite the often violent subject matter of the film, the city is portrayed as sun-soaked, dusty and nostalgic. Even in the vast urban space there is a careful focus on small daily rituals such as watering plants and trips to the grocery store – activities which, for us now, are the most exciting parts of our days. It’s comforting to see them portrayed on screen – a reassurance that even the mundanity of our lockdown lives could in some way be perceived as cinematic. The film feels deeply authentic behind its sepia colour correction, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with the cool apartment stairwells and dappled hotel windowsills in their strange familiarity. Whether or not you’ve been to New York, the film makes the city feel like an old friend, perhaps through the streetwise nature of its protagonist. Mathilda is a reminder of the carefree way we used to walk the streets of our own hometowns before the pandemic, and hopefully one day soon will do again.

Luc Besson's Léon: The ProfessionalTWITTER/RECONSIDERINGCINEMA

The protagonist of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015) is a little less streetwise and a little more naïve, and in this one-take thriller we experience the insanity of an all-nighter in Berlin alongside her. As with Cléo de 5 à 7, we are taken into the hubbub of the streets by the camera’s proximity to people, and its focus on the easily overlooked details of the cityscape. In a way the audience is the camera, included in the narrative, and this experience is made even more wonderful at a time when viewers are stuck inside, unable to feel that closeness to strangers. Being prohibited from immersion in urban life gives an intensity to the way we see the people on the streets, and a new appreciation for the happenstance of unexpected human interaction. We accompany Victoria through Berlin as a new day breaks – underground clubs, rooftops, cafés before opening, empty streets at sunrise – and discover the city by her side. The film is fast-paced, tense and at times terrifying, and the only thing that could match up to watching it would be living through it.

Sebastian Schipper's VictoriaTWITTER/DUBLINFILMFEST

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Just as the vivid descriptions of the busy streets of London in Mrs Dalloway are an important reminder that society can and will recover from disaster, these films remind us that there will be a future equally rich with cinematic celebrations of urban environments. We may all feel trapped at the moment, but we won’t be forever. For now, find joy and hope in these vibrant snapshots of cities, and later, experience those cities for yourselves.

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