In an interview for Sight & Sound, conducted by Tom Milne in October of 1962, Jean-Luc Godard was asked if he felt his most recent work, Vivre sa vie (62), was a departure from its predecessors. Godard replied that, on the contrary, he felt it was an arrival. The previous work had been the product of a cinephile, one whose knowledge of life had accumulated exclusively within the spectral darkness of the cinema, where as this, his fourth movie, a somewhat somber chronicle of an aspiring actress’ slippage into prostitution, was the first to be constructed in the open air, so to speak, to attempt to absorb and reflect upon the realities of the world beyond, not to mention upon art forms other than the movies. It may read as sacrilege, particularly on this, the 50th anniversary of Breathless (60), his iconoclastic debut, the movie that more than any other encapsulates the French New Wave, but Vivre sa vie does feel in some sense like Godard Year Zero, like the full emergence, both politicized and poeticized, of the auteur who dominated the 1960s and changed his medium forever. It certainly had far greater impact on me, someone discovering these movies decades later. Breathless excited me. Vivre sa vie arrested me, and continues to do so. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with characteristically superb supplements, from the Criterion Collection.
A “film in twelve tableaux,” each preceded by a title card listing telegraphic synopses of their contents—ie: THE BOULEVARDS – THE FIRST MAN – THE ROOM—Vivre sa vie, though compact and economical, unfolds with the rhythm and structural intricacy of a novel, perhaps a character study from Zola, from whom Godard borrowed his heroine’s name. Yet Nana (Anna Karina), first seen during the credits in a trio of close-ups, resembling mug-shots, is also an anagram for the name of the actress portraying her. This is but one of multiple allusions to the nature of this movie’s double game: it is at once a work of fiction and a kind of documentary, about prostitution, of which we will learn a fair amount, particularly in the montage of transactions set to a series of frequently asked questions; about Paris’ suburbs and the lives passing through them; and about Karina, Godard’s wife and valiant collaborator, who like her character came from elsewhere to make it in the movies. Karina’s performance is repeatedly startling. At times she looks directly at the camera, with those immense, worried eyes, as though checking in, or wondering if this is how things were meant to go. She seems always to be utterly immersed in the most immediate sources of stimulus for her character—writing a letter, dancing, conversing with a philosopher, “hooking” a client, or, most famously, being moved to tears by The Passion of Joan of Arc (28)—while also somehow aware of being the subject of a movie. While positively radiating innocence, Karina, then all of 21, had already sufficiently developed as an artist to follow her husband/director onto the high wire, the result being this movie that, in a new age of understanding and sophistication with regards to what movies can be, draws attention to its artifice, though camera work and through its eerie use of truncated fragments of Michel Legrand’s score, while never spoiling its fictive illusions.
Prostitution is a primal theme in Godard’s work, and the problematic role of actresses in the movies, as the subject of the (predominantly) male gaze, is never far from the surface. Fortunately Godard isn’t interested in victimization—the excerpt he selects from Joan of Arc emphasizes the heroine’s participation in her own martyrdom—but rather in the social dynamics that allow one such as Nana to be gradually swallowed up by misfortune. There is in Vivre sa vie a constant mistrust of interpretation, or even of the meaning of words themselves, not an insignificant statement coming from a former critic. Nana expresses her discomfort with words in the first scene, where she breaks up with a boyfriend in a café, trying out certain token phrases as though trying for the best line reading, while Godard, perversely, shoots their conversation from behind, so that their faces are unseen and all we have to go on are their words themselves. Godard places obstacles between Karina’s face and the camera almost as often as he allows her face to consume its frame in an act of pure portraiture, yet the images in Vivre sa vie, though occasionally awkward, aren’t obtuse but rather fixating and beautiful, and there seems to be a sly joke in the fact that the first name of Nana’s pimp is the same as that of the movie’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. From start to finish Vivre sa vie continually reminds us that Godard’s greatest work is never, as the cliché suggests, a cold, intellectual exercise. This is a work of rapture, curiosity, rigorous play, and, indeed, genuine compassion, so that even if its abrupt finale feels perhaps like the intrusion of one type of movie onto another, we’re left with the devastating feeling that at any moment those who slip through the cracks, whether in art or in life, are that much more likely to be caught in the crossfire.