Friday, November 4, 2011

Classic Throwback: Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)

Vivre sa vie has been translated in various ways; as My Life to Live and To Live Ones Life. It is a complex and fascinating 12-chapter (or tableaux) portrait of the descent of an independent and financially strapped young woman, Nana (Anna Karina), a record store clerk and aspiring actress, into prostitution. The film is told in a documentary style and functions more as an essay, relaying, before the start of each vignette, a brief text synopsis.

Following Godard’s earlier films (Breathless, La petite soldat and Un femme est une femme), this adopts a more socially aware brand of political filmmaking that utilizes the vignette approach (that would later be prominent in Masculine Feminine and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her). It’s dense in theme, and not a minute of the tight 85-minute running time exists without purpose. Godard returns to black and white cinematography, which features stunning work from regular Godard collaborator, Raoul Coutard.

Nana is a beautiful Parisian woman is in her early twenties. In the film’s opening sequence, which consists of Godard shooting the backs of Nana and her husband, Paul (Andre S. Labarthe), as they converse, it is revealed that Nana has decided to leave Paul and their infant son in the hopes of becoming an actress. She is a strong-willed and independent woman who desires to live out a life of her own choosing.

Low on money (and in one vignette she is locked out of her apartment due to failure to pay her rent), she casually wanders around the record store where she works, asking her colleagues for a loan. When she is unsuccessful, she elects to earn better money as a prostitute. She meets Raoul (Sady Rebbot), a pimp who regularizes her work, and takes to the streets, using her ample sexuality to earn a living off men who desire her.

Each of the vignettes is memorable in it’s own way, and Godard squeezes so much into each one – philosophical discussions about human conversing and the use of language, commentaries on mainstream film style (as well as a tribute to silent films – the use of the close-up and long periods void of dialogue) and experiments with camera technique in addition to the documentation of Nana’s life. There are several memorable sequences; Nana’s trip to the theatre to watch Carl Theordor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one.

The film is evidently an influence to Godard here, as he utilizes Karina’s face just as Dreyer used Maria Falconetti’s. Godard is clearly in love with the luminous features and porcelain skin of Karina, whose very presence seems to have Godard transfixed. They were married after all. It is also the moment when Nana foresees her own martyrdom and decides to take on a new work venture, one that ends in tragic circumstances. The unforgettable shot of Karina watching the beautiful film – and there is a lengthy sample from the film – with tears rolling down her cheeks (just as Joan is) has become an iconic capture in cinema.

Other key scenes are the sensuous montage of Nana first working as a prostitute, which is accompanied by Raoul’s voice-over as he explains the rules and rituals of her new profession (how many men she would be expected to entertain a day, the frequency of a change of sheets at hotels, and birth control procedures), a jukebox melody/dance sequence in a bar, which involves the camera following Karina around the room as she attempts to pick up men, and a long conversation between Nana and a stranger (actually played by a French philosopher named Brice Parain) about language and truth. It is interesting to note that most of the takes used by Godard were actually first takes. The naturalism of Karina's performance, the intention of capturing the events as though they were documented on-the-fly and not scripted, becomes evident.

Once again, Godard has refrained from making a conventional film. The episodic nature of the film ensures it is consistently challenging the audience with something new. There is an unspecified period of time separating each of the chapters of Nana’s story, and the density of Godard’s philosophical probing, his questioning of the manner in which men and women view one another, and his personal flourishes that reveal his own cinematic inspirations and passions, make this a significant and affecting film. From the opening frame to the usual abrupt conclusion, which ends with a bizarre look-away shot, it is a treat.


  1. These Godart reviews are making me want to watch french movies...something that I almost never do! I'll try Breathless and then this one!

  2. I really loved this one. I thought it was so sad, and I felt it showed this whole world and reality that isn't even talked about much. Anna Karina was just heart-wrenching. She had such an amazing face! One of my favourites by Godard.

  3. *applauds loudly* I haven't watched that film in almost ten years. Have forgotten how beautifully constructed it was.

  4. An amazing film. This is easily one of my favourite Godards. There are so many things about it - particularly the way certain scenes were shot - that I love. Anna Karina is at her finest, and Godard produces one of his absolute best films.

  5. @ Aziza - Haha, I'm glad I have persuaded you to check out some French. There are plenty of great ones out there. All of Godard's work that I have seen so far (and don't forget A Woman is A Woman :-p) have been great. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    @ Nikhat - Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's a really intimate portrayal of an independent woman who wants to live her own life on her own terms - and how she decides to do that is a beautiful but heart-wrenching story. The use of the tableaux means that the film is constantly evolving and offering up so much in just a short space of time. Godard's films are always dense and always experimenting with different political and social critiques, and philosophical contemplation. Of course, Anna Karina was lovely too!

    @ John - Well, thank you! Yeah, it is surely one of Godard's finest. Thanks for reading!

    @ Tyler - Every scene is shot in a different way - showing just the backs of Nana and Paul in the opening scene and following her as she dances around the bar. Also, I read that most of the takes were the first take, and you get the sense that these are documented events that have been captured on-the-fly, a feature of a lot of Godard's films. I also agree, this is Anna Karina's best role so far!

    Thanks for reading everyone.

  6. Glad to see that you liked this, it's definitely one of my favorites ever, and easily my favorite Godard.

    Nice mention if how Godard usually only shot every scene once. When you think about how long these shots are, it's just incredible.

  7. Yeah, I was pretty impressed to read that fact about Godard. I'm not sure what my favourite is - I have liked them all. My favourite might still be Masculine Feminine, one of the few Godard's I had seen prior to this challenge. Though I really liked Breathless, I think this is most affecting - and the most technically experimental (so far). And Anna Karina is simply stunning!

  8. This is one that I didn't like immediately - it was just such a downer, I initially had a hard time connecting with it. But then I couldn't get it out of my head, and now it's one of my favorite Godards. Go figure. David Bordwell, who's written some good stuff about Godard, especially from a formalist point of view, suggests that one thing he's doing in this film is testing different ways of filming conversations, especially in terms of camera placement and movement during extended bits of dialogue. I thought that was an interesting point, and it is true that no two conversations are really handled the same way in the film.

  9. I wasn't immediately sure how much I liked it either, but I thought a lot about it the day after viewing, and realised I did. I think it takes a little time to process, considering how dense it is thematically. You make a great point re: the way conversations are shot - definitely an experiment on Godard's part.

  10. I missed this post when you first published it! This was the first Godard film I saw, and it really made an impact with the whole of our cinema class I think (plus our lecturer is such a Godard/New Wave enthusiast it's hard not to become enthusiastic yourself). I think my favourite sequence had to be when Nana was watching the Passion of Joan of Arc.