Agnes Varda on how to freak out a tarot client
Cleo from 5 to 7, The French New Wave film directed by Agnes Varda in 1962, begins with a lengthy card reading scene that’s a lesson in what not to do when you see bad news in the cards.
The film follows a woman as she wanders around Paris for two hours trying to distract herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy. Cleo starts her sojourn by visiting a middle-aged woman to get her cards read. The reader spreads out nine cards from Le Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand, three each for past, present and future. It’s nothing but happy news until she gets to the last few cards. As the message gets darker, the reader gets more flustered and distressed and is obviously not saying everything she sees; which, of course, makes Cleo suspect the worst.
In an attempt to salvage the situation, the reader abruptly ends the reading, sweeps the cards off the table and deals three cards from the Tarot de Marseille: Empress, Magician and Tower. She pulls a clarification card for the Tower (big mistake) and gets Death. By now, Cleo is coming unglued with anxiety because it’s obvious the cards are validating her worst fears. But the reader babbles on about how the Death card really means “transformation” and refuses to be honest with her client, or address her obvious distress.
After Cleo leaves, the reader’s husband comes out of a back room and the woman tells him she clearly saw cancer and death in the cards.
The lesson is obvious: don’t ignore the elephant in the room. If you see bad news in the cards, especially if it’s evident the client is seeing the same thing, don’t try to paper it over with a lot of happy talk.
I was rather surprised to hear the “Death actually means transformation” line from a traditional French card reader. I’ve always associated that optimistic interpretation of Death with psychologically-oriented Americans. I checked three French authors and found the following interpretations of the Death card:
Etteilla: Mortality, annihilation, destruction
Oswald Wirth: The transforming principle which renews all things, Inescapable fate/fatality, necessary end…
Papus: Destruction preceding or following regeneration; God the transformer
So “transformation” is present at least from the late 19th century. But it’s in the context of complete destruction and recycling so something radically new can arise. It’s not a Cinderella transformation where your fairy godmother waves a wand over your head and you get to live happily- ever-after as a reward for enduring some bad stuff. This fluffier interpretation seems to have gained traction with Eden Gray. Her first book in 1960 follows Wirth closely. But her divinatory meanings for Death from her 1970 book, A Complete Guide to the Tarot, read as follows: “Transformation, change, destruction followed by renewal. The change may be in consciousness. Birth of new ideas, new opportunities.”
What started in 19th century France as a complete cycle of death then renewal, ended up in mid-20th century America with a lopsided emphasis on the rebirth part of the cycle.