Vivre sa Vie 05/04/2010
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Vivre sa Vie is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best films and stands out from his 60s period as a more focused and consistent work. Taking his inspiration from Brecht, Sartre and Bresson, Godard was able to examine an existential struggle with a simultaneous distance and intimacy. He displays an uncanny ability to simply observe the protagonist, Nana, played by Anna Karina, his wife at the time, while also subtly penetrating her character and imposing Godard’s own presence in a manner considerably less abrasive then in Breathless or A Woman is a Woman. Indeed, no camera is more familiar with it’s subject than that of Godard’s and Anna Karina. However, in spite of this familiarity, bewilderment is also expressed; an inability to come to terms with another human being with a different range of thought. In Breathless, this frustration with not understanding a woman is explored through the point of view of a male protagonist but in Vivre sa Vie, Godard keeps this male presence behind the camera, tackling this dilemma with a delicacy new to his craft, an earnest desire of curious compassion.
As mentioned, Vivre sa Vie represents a large difference in filmmaking from what Godard had done with his three prior films. The film plays like the complete opposite of A Woman is a Woman; Vivre sa Vie is less indulgent and playful and uses an entrancing minimalism to potent affect. The film also predates the overt political content that Godard would become known for. What we are left with then, is a unique work of a master auteur, made at a point when he neither lamented about the strain between he and Karina nor infused his films with political ideals. Vivre sa Vie, then, is a film lacking the messy urgency of Godard’s typical 60s work, instead possessing a remarkable patience.
Separated into twelve “tableaux” with Brecthian intertitles, Godard uses the story of Nana to investigate an essential human problem: In a society where we exchange flesh and money, do we maintain our humanity and freedom? Early in the film, we observe Nana working at a record shop. Later, she will become a prostitute. It is important to note that that her conduct is the same at both of these jobs. At both the record store and the hotel used by the prostitutes, Nana performs her duties with reluctant submission. Even her relationship with her co-workers is similar. In the record shop we see her navigate around asking her female co-workers for help in the same, casual, matter-of-fact manner she will eventually navigate the hotel seeking help from her fellow prostitutes. While Godard purposefully chose prostitution as the premise for his film, it is clear he is not interested in the ins and outs of the lifestyle but in the human struggle it can represent. After all, working in a record shop is also a form of lending oneself in order to make money and indeed all participants in the capitalist system are, in a sense, whores. At the end of the day, is one’s individuality, one’s soul, retained? As the Montaigne quote at the beginning of the film says “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Vivre sa Vie is a film sets out to find if this is possible.
Vivre sa Vie also stands out from Godard’s 60s work, as, perhaps, do Contempt and Pierrot le Fou, for being considerably moving. For the most part the intentional stiltedness of Godard from that period makes it difficult to get emotionally involved with his films, which, is an aspect partly responsible for causing critics to wrongly categorize Godard as being exclusively cerebral. With Vivre sa Vie, as in all of Godard’s films, when it begins to get emotional, he immediately puts a stop to it, using an alienation effect with Bresson-like control. In some of Godard’s work, and certainly in this film, this technique often heightens the effect of the given scene because we are made hyperconscious of these moments. Best of all, in Vivre sa Vie, occasionally these efforts to restrain emotion beautifully fail, revealing a filmmaker at his most human. Of course, one of his most profound touches is allowing Karina to emote while watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, finding consolation in the cinema, connecting with Joan of Arc’s martyrdom.
In one of Godard’s most moving scenes, the film breaks any remnants of realism by abruptly switching over to silent filmmaking, with the dialogue between Nana and a newfound lover being conveyed through subtitles. Then, without warning, Godard’s own voice begins to narrate from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Oval Portrait (which the male lover was reading). No longer are we observing Nana, but instead Anna Karina herself. Godard asks her if he may continue and she answers as we realize Godard is reading this off camera in direct conversation with his wife. The passage describes a painter, who becomes so awestruck with a portrait he is creating of his wife that he begins to ignore the real woman. It is here that Godard commits his proclamation of love to celluloid, the one indulgence he allows himself. It is also here where he makes note of the dangers of filming his wife, and tragically predicts the inevitable end of their relationship. As mentioned, the film is, in part, an attempt to understand Karina. The camera intimately observes her, but often views the back of her head, never fully discovering her. Vivre sa Vie doubles as a husband’s portrait of his wife, a work of extraordinary co-operation.
The film is of considerable precision, yet Godard claims the opposite. Often the script would only be prepared by Godard minutes before filming, something he is know for doing, allowing Karina little time to memorize her lines. Perhaps the film’s precision comes not from organization or preparation but from Godard’s intense focus on both Karina and the film’s existential themes. In one scene, Nana vocalizes her beliefs in conversation with a friend at a café. She remarks how she realizes she is responsible for all of her actions, no matter how small. She is even responsible for her own happiness, which is perfectly demonstrated in the sequence where she dances at the pool hall in spite of a rather somber mood in the room. The dialogue of this scene is key as we realize Nana takes responsibility for her actions. and by default for her decision to turn to prostitution. Yet, we must also consider that it may not be Nana’s fault that she finds herself in a difficult financial situation that has rendered her unable to pay the rent. Perhaps it is simply where she was placed in society, by chance, which determined such surrounding factors.
The question ultimately becomes of Nana’s freedom. Is she a prisoner of society, or does she determine her own destiny? The answer may rest in something Godard said about his relationship with cinema. When someone suggested to Godard that he was able to do whatever he had wanted when making his films, Godard replied “No, I always did what I wanted within the limits of what I could do.” Perhaps, in her given situation, she did act with freedom when she could. Then, of course, out of her control, she is shot and killed. So we whore, dance, and then die. Do we even exist? Nana did, for a little while, if only in the dark of the cinema.
Vivre sa Vie is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.