It's a real pity that the arc shot didn't emerge sooner. I can imagine it capturing the blissful romantic denouements in classic Hollywood cinema: George (James Stewart) and Mary's (Donna Reed) life-affirming kiss in It's a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) and Don's (Gene Kelly) lengthy exhibition of love beneath the billboard of their upcoming film in Singin' in the Rain (Donen and Kelly, 1952), and Terry (Deborah Kerr) and Nickie's (Cary Grant) reconciliatory embrace in An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 1957). There's something immanent in the quality of the shot that makes it so fitting for these films, for their dreamlike visions of ordinary life and their melodramatic textures. Actual uses of the arc shot – whereby the camera circularly rotates around (or part of) the subjects – appear frequently in mainstream 1990s romance cinema. It was deployed in James Cameron's Titanic (1997) in that ineffaceable scene where Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) holds Rose (Kate Winslet) on the hull of the Titanic. The shot augments the emotionality of the moment, utterly sweeping us up in the joy of their mismatched love. And, as Josie (Drew Barrymore) and Sam (Michael Vartan) lock lips for the first time at a packed baseball field in Never Been Kissed (1999), Raja Gosnell's camera floridly spins around them. We become washed up in Josie's ecstasy, left with the notion that she and Sam have a propitious destiny together.

Agnès Varda, a central figure in the Left Bank filmmaking group, does things a little differently. Her distinct filmmaking gifts are ubiquitously visible in her second feature, Cléo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962). We follow Florence Victoire (Corinne Marchand) – who goes by the stage name Cléo, a young, ascendant pop singer – through two hours of her life. They're two gruelling hours, as she's awaiting biopsy results. From the myriad images and moments in the film, which range from the beautiful to the desolate, one in particular distils Cléo From 5 to 7's essence. It arrives rather early, about a quarter of the way through the film. Cléo is sitting on her ornate bed as her lover José (José Luis de Vilallonga) comes to visit. She's delighted to see him, and he plants a kiss on her outstretched hand, like a prince might do for a princess. As the camera, slowly but surely, semi circles Cléo and José, Varda lulls us into the premature belief that their relationship is idyllic, impossibly romantic. This is reinforced by the baroque music heard in the scene. José soon settles down close to Cléo on the bed, their eye contact apparently unbreakable, as they exchange flirtatious chatter.

However, as the shot progresses, the unbalanced dynamics of their relationship become clear. It's fraught with artifice, emotional distance and self-interest. José persistently condescends to Cléo, telling her, like a father might tell his neglected children, "It upsets me to see so little of you". Likewise, as he tosses away a cat-shaped hot water bottle, José doubts the severity of her illness. "What's wrong today?" he detachedly asks. José's life and obligations, moreover, far outweigh their relationship, as he painfully, and frequently, alludes to his congested schedule. Cléo is an afterthought for José, a porcelain doll that ought not move from her designated place. She must fit around his life and remain subordinate to his authority. As the arc shot was yet to be inextricably linked with romantic flourish in 1962, Varda's thwarting of its potential is prescient. Like the best filmmakers, she uses form to shape content. Her camera movement casts existential doubt on the authenticity of Cléo's relationship with José. In this process, Varda has assigned the arc shot a new and interesting meaning.1

The stylistic qualities of Varda's arc shot symbolise Cléo's initial disposition. In Adrian Martin's words, she's "petulant, frivolous, vain, scatty."2 I would also add self-deceptive. In the opening scenes, she declares in voiceover, that despite her great anxieties, "As long as I'm beautiful, I'm alive more than others." She wears a wig and endlessly gazes into the many mirrors and reflective surfaces that Varda has inserted into the mise-en-scène. For Cléo, appearance is everything. This isn't only true for her looks but also for her relationships. Ostensibly, she and José are smitten with each other: he kisses her hand, he holds her in his arms, they look deeply into one another's eyes. But this impression fades quickly. The most telling detail in the shot relates to their discussion of Cléo's health. Rather than let José in on the news that she might have cancer, Cléo plays up to his belief that she's capricious, a delicate hypochondriac. Indeed, they share a superficial relationship, devoid of trust and reliability. The arc shot – acutely evocative of illusion, of embellishment and varnish – mirrors the insubstantial nature of Cléo's existence.

Moreover, their tryst represents a meaningful turning point in the trajectory of Cléo's life and the film. Once Varda finishes semi circling the characters, she cuts abruptly and jarringly: signalling that we've left the world of fantasy and surfaces. José leaves for some undisclosed commercial reason, and Cléo rushes to castigate his lack of concern for her. "He doesn't take me seriously," she says. It isn't long until new guests come to further unsettle Cléo. Her musical team, Bob (Michel Legrand) and Maurice (Serge Korber), invade her large, spacious apartment. Like José, they're unconvinced of her illness, and mockingly imitate doctors for their own amusement. Disgruntled, Cléo departs her rather comfortable den, which is thanklessly tended to by her maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray). The apartment has served as a place of insulation, of safety from the travails of self-examination for Cléo. So when she takes to the streets, Cléo is propelled towards quiet reflection and introspection. On her walks she comes across a wacky street performer swallowing frogs, an old friend, and a new one too – a French soldier named Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller). Although, it's her independent travel that feels most significant. She breaks out of her passivity, out of her status as a mere object of desire and occasional derision. She becomes a more self-directing agent through the very act of strolling in open spaces.

Her marked evolution is seen with Antoine. Although apprehensive when he first introduces himself, Cléo takes an understandable liking to him. Their small talk soon subsides; Antoine opens up about his mortal fears of returning to the Algerian War, and Cléo discusses her impending diagnosis. There's no need for an arc shot here, for Cléo is no longer living in a self-obsessed, illusory world. Her and Antoine's friendship is genuine, the two of them bonded by their mutual proximity to death. Together, they go to meet Cléo's doctor. He is driving from the facility, and Cléo catches him just in time. Casually, he informs Cléo of her diagnosis. She has cancer. The doctor speeds off in his car, leaving Cléo at a standstill. She's received the news she's been dreading. But her prospects are hardly bleak. Now on the way to becoming an independent, poised woman, Cléo has at her disposal the faculties to negotiate a tumultuous future full of uncertainty and anxiety. José is unneeded, and Angèle won't have to serve Cléo's every whim. Some support from friends might prove useful, but it is Cléo who will be in control of her career, relationships and life. No matter what happens.