Director Jean-Luc Godard with his wife, actress Anna Karina
MY LIFE TO LIVE (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux) A
France (85 mi) 1962 d: Jean-Luc Godard
The chicken has an inside and an outside. If you strip away the outside, you see the inside; and if you strip away the inside, you see the soul.
―Paul (André S. Labarthe), recalling a homework essay submitted by a young girl
Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival and still arguably Godard’s best film, though both directors Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Pierre Melville, friends of Godard, walked out of screenings unimpressed. Only the second Godard film to be released in the USA, described by Susan Sontag as “one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of,” this was a turning point in his young career, as this is not so much a film as a filmed essay on the human condition, using a format more to his liking as his career progresses, allowing a free exchange of ideas in cinematic composition. A near documentary exploration of class, prostitution, art and existentialism, in particular the role of women, as seen through several points of view, not the least of which is a real philosopher sitting in a Parisian café expounding on his thoughts, as we witness a person develop into a conscious human being, while the director himself is so enamored with his female subject (his wife Anna Karina in the third of their seven films together) before the camera that he’s effectively become an adoring client to her prostitute, though the underlying implications are much darker, that she’s playing the prostitute to Godard’s pimp. Since the beginning, Godard’s films are about ideas, delving into different styles to express them, where this couldn’t be a greater contrast from his previous films, from a gangster on the run B-movie romance to a bright and cheery musical comedy, this is something altogether different. A study of lucidity, a question of meaning, Godard introduces philosophical questions, and while his first films were all seen from an essentially masculine point of view, this returns to that existential question asked by Jean Seberg in Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) (1960), “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy,” where the political and social position of women becomes a central concern, suggesting a shift in the director’s own personal development. Never explaining why or what led up to each point in her life, Godard only reveals what happens in detached, unemotional terms, almost scientifically, as the film is distanced by draining the drama from it, where this Brechtian theatrical style forces viewers to provide the emotion to each situation. The film is dedicated to B-movies, though only the throwaway ending has the feel of stock footage from a Monogram Pictures Hollywood gangster flick, replicating a scene shot on exactly the same spot in Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956), driving a car that was one of Melville’s own, as after all, he was a witness at Godard and Karina’s wedding. Told in different stages marked by 12 chapter headings and a musical theme, where that brief Michel Legrand interlude remains memorable and astonishingly effective, abruptly starting and stopping, yet having the capacity to cleanse the soul like a perfect Bach theme. Hearing just a few seconds is enough to send one into a state of ecstatic reverie, much like the gorgeous piano music in Fassbinder (Peer Raben) or Kieslowski (Zbigniew Preisner) films. Anna Karina is exquisitely tender in what is arguably her best performance, a beautiful, touching, and complex original work, an excellent interior drama, the most tender and beautifully designed Godard film about coming of age and discovering our own humanity.
Remaining one of his most dynamic films, made for just $40,000, combining brilliant visual design with a tragic character study, Karina plays Nana, a young Parisian seen early on from the back only at the counter of a café having a family spat with Paul (Cahiers critic André S. Labarthe), the husband she left, which we aren’t allowed to see, only hear, shifting the emphasis to the words being spoken, becoming eavesdroppers as we can catch small glimpses of them in the mirror on the wall, so instead we watch the movements of the workers behind the counter, who probably view this as an everyday, ordinary experience. Revolted by his behavior, as he refuses to help her financially, she takes a shot at him, “The more you talk, the less it means,” tired of the unending arguments that leave her emotionally depleted and exhausted, in effect stripping down her character, shedding her skin, so to speak, as she leaves her old identity behind with dreams of becoming an actress. What follows is a downward spiral, however, a choreography of everchanging moods as Nana makes her way through Paris drifting from dead-end jobs, café’s, streets, and hotel rooms to a life of prostitution, with the camera capturing her reactions throughout as she is reduced to a commodity, a means of exploitation, with Karina assuming the look of Silent era film star Louise Brooks, Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (1928), whose character Lulu similarly plunges into a bleak word of prostitution. One might also note that the name Nana might have been in reference to Émile Zola’s 1880 novel entitled Nana, featuring a heroine with aspirations to become an actress but is similarly drawn into the world of prostitution. Zola was an artist in the realist tradition, where his interest was expressing a profound naturalism, which certainly mirrors the Godard treatment, offering a dispassionate and uncompromising view of Nana’s descent, yet surprisingly communicates intense emotion. Perhaps the most iconic moment in the film is witnessing Nana in tears as she watches Maria Falconetti in a movie screening of Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), able to convey such depth of emotion without dialogue (though Dreyer bullied her unmercifully to draw out her performance, ironically a Danish director shooting a French actress, while here a French director is shooting a Danish actress), where her suffering is her deliverance with death the transcendence of her earthly soul, a scene that interestingly contrasts a saint and a whore, allowing us a glimpse of the sacred and the profane (Falconetti ironically ended up as a prostitute in Brazil), where not lost on viewers is the haranguing she receives from one of Jeanne’s male accusers, played by Antonin Artaud, a contemporary of Brecht who similarly viewed theater as a means of liberation. As dry and academic as Godard has become in the latter stages of his career, perhaps reaching for the unfathomable, as if he’s in the company of the gods, this film above all things feels human, making it completely accessible, where viewers connect with the human tragedy being depicted onscreen, with the film continuously exploring Nana’s inner nature, caught up in the interplay between intimacy and alienation, with Karina in full flower as an actress.
With prostitution as a metaphor for the exploitation and degradation of women, the film reveals the objective nature of Nana’s life, living in a society that gives her the illusion of freedom and even the idea that personal responsibility can prevail, yet chops her down at every turn, as Nana is plunged into a world beyond her control or understanding. According to Susan Sontag, “Freedom has no psychological interior. The soul is to be found upon stripping away the inside of a person. Freedom is not an inner psychological something ― but more like physical grace. It is being who one is." The cycle of her journey consists of rejections, as her husband Paul is unsympathetic and refuses to lend her money, her landlady bars entrance to her apartment for unpaid rent, none of her coworkers at a record store will lend her money, she attempts modeling and tries unsuccessfully to break into the movies (claiming she made a film with Eddie Constantine), then gets arrested for trying to steal 1000 francs that fell out of a woman’s purse and dropped to the ground, covering it up with her foot, but released when the woman realizes what happened and stares her down. She falls into prostitution almost by accident, by mistaken identity, as she’s alone wandering the streets when a man propositions her, leading to her first horrific experience, Vivre sa vie - YouTube (4:45), the ultimate feeling of debasement, filmed in a detached, Bressonian manner, reaching a violent climax that appallingly connects with viewers. Introduced to a pimp by one of her friends, she naively constructs a letter requesting employment, oblivious to the harsh realities of the trade, where her introduction into the business plays out like a scientific journal, consisting of questions and blunt answers, riding in a car with her pimp and protector, Raoul (Sady Rebbot), with Godard filming working prostitutes on the street as if they are part of the everyday reality of life in Paris, using a voice void of emotion describing the working conditions like it’s any other business, told in a cold, clinical manner, documenting the laws that pertain to their work and the hazards involved, the mandatory sanitary inspections, interactions with police, where they’re expected to pay taxes by the week, and can’t refuse anyone willing to pay. The detachment is crucial in this scene, as the film doesn’t treat her with compassion, where the scary indifference of the men in this business, both customers and pimp alike, undermines any hint of dignity. Standing outside on the street, like a living billboard advertisement, she’s viewed as part of the consumer culture of the modern world, like a shiny new appliance, something to buy or sell, or even discard after you’re done with it. The more she is treated like a cheap commodity, the more she loses any sense of self worth. An extraordinary scene reveals the depths of her delusion, just wanting to be happy on a day away from work, like going to the movies, dancing freely around a pool table, momentarily free from her oppressive life, flirting with a silent stranger (who never says a word and later becomes her boyfriend), but interrupting her boss has unintended consequences, yet it’s filmed like a sad but dreamy affair, like something you’d see in a Marilyn Monroe movie, Vivre Sa Vie (1962) Nana's Dance 720p HD - YouTube (7:22).
Easily the most interesting section involves Nana running into real-life philosopher Brice Parain, striking up a conversation that feels completely natural, as it’s unlike anything else in the film, or anything Godard had filmed before, yet it’s strikingly original, providing a needed cinéma vérité sequence that establishes the truth of analytic thinking as a fundamental foundation for this film, as it’s literally brimming with ideas. Parain couldn’t be more interesting, or Nana a more curious conversationalist, taking us on a walk through Western civilization that likely mirrors Godard’s own personal views, but Parain is not in the least bit like all the adjectives leveled against Godard, suggesting he’s pretentiously effete, intellectually abstract, tedious and downright boring, becoming distanced and separated from his audience. Parain is an everyman who talks in a language that can be universally understood, who prides himself in his knowledge, and does an excellent job sharing some of it in the film. Playing the role of a kindly grandfather figure, he’s the one man in the film that doesn’t take advantage of her, who simply deals with her on his own terms. Nana holds her own in this conversation (occasionally staring directly into the camera), maintaining a healthy curiosity, adding her own provocative ideas, something not normally associated with female protagonists or lower-class characters in films at that time, which to some degree explains what’s so essential about this film, as it takes us places no other film does (Full text of the dialogue in episode 11: Нана и философ. Vivre sa vie (1962), J.-L. Godard - depth of reality). While the black and white look of the film captured by Raoul Coutard is exquisite, with many long shots where his camera rediscovers the expressive possibilities of the human face, including some of the best window shots of the streets of Paris, but notice the difference in the way Nana is shot with Parain, openly expressing herself, with both equally centered, and the way she was similarly shot in a café with Raoul, whose head all but blocks out and covers her entire body, effectively wiping her very existence out of the picture altogether, minimizing her importance or anything she might have to offer. Perhaps because of this Nana’s opportunity to freely express herself feels like a kind of liberated spirit, like Maria Falconetti’s Jeanne d”Arc at the hour of her death, somehow able to openly release her soul. What follows also has a dreamlike feel, as Nana is with a young man (Peter Kassovitz) in a beautiful one-roomed apartment with a window illuminated by the sun. The young man appears to be a bookworm, reading from the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, living without speaking, as she suggested she desired in her conversation with Parain, with subtitles conveying their thoughts, yet he reads a passage from The Oval Portrait, a story about an artist recounting his ability to capture real life in a work of art, painting a picture of his wife, making her immortal, doubling as a story of this couple in the room, with close-up shots of an appealing Nana standing next to a smaller photograph of actress Elizabeth Taylor, with the voice of Godard himself doing the reading, which is a clever way to inject the director into his own film and the onscreen relationship, probably coming very close to merging real-life into a work of art, Vivre sa vie (1962) - oval portrait YouTube (4:31). As he reads on, in the intensity of the moment the artist neglected to realize his wife’s deteriorating health while sitting for the painting, only to discover that at the moment of completion, with emotion swelling in his heart a what he had finally achieved, he turns to her only to discover she’s dead. In their own euphoric moment, Nana has thoughts of giving up her profession to come live with him, but in no time at all real life kicks back in, suggesting it’s all a dream, where we see her again in the cold, calculating way the business sees her, as her services are literally owned by someone else, depriving her of her own free will, extinguished senselessly in the blink of an eye in a bad business deal gone wrong, viewed as little more than collateral damage, the price of doing business in a world defined by men and money.
Of interest, this is 20-year old Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film review as submitted May 1966 for the German Film and Television Academy entrance examinations in Berlin, where he was denied admittance.
The story of a consciousness: Vivre sa vie.
To this day, Vivre sa vie, Godard’s fourth full-length feature film, has remained the author’s best. It is a didactic piece (Lehrstuck), in the Brechtian sense, a film about a “modern” young woman, a documentary about prostitution, and a study of bistros and street life in Paris.
The actual Story of Nana S, as the film is called In Germany, is quickly told. Nana leaves her husband, whose child she has borne, “because things didn’t work out,” even though they liked each other, because she wants her freedom back. It becomes quite clear that she has no talent for day-to-day living. When her money troubles become more and more pressing, she turns to prostitution. Yet she remains basically innocent until her death, which is horrible and senseless, at the end of the movie.
Godard prefaces his film with a quotation from Montaigne: “One must surrender to others and remain true to oneself.” With this quotation in mind, he sets out to show the stages by which a person turns into a conscious human being.
He divides the story into twelve chapters, interrupting the flow of the action with chapter headings, thus never letting the viewer identify with the character and forcing him to follow his train of thought.
Each stage is clearly defined – at the start, for instance, the story of the chicken, which consists of an inside and an outside. If you take away the outside, the inside remains, and if you take that, too, the soul remains. Moreover, the stages are marked by the musical theme which is heard at regular intervals.
Other stages are Nana experiencing the suffering of Jeanne d’Arc, by Th. Dreyer; her statement after the police interrogation: “I want to become another person;” the first man she gives herself to (in a horrendous scene); her acquaintance with Paris prostitution; her encounter with a young man whom she will love; her realization of the interchangeability of her character; a conversation about love and language with the philosopher Brice Parain.
Vivre sa vie is a movie about love and language. Nana and the young man love one another. Godard expresses it like this” The young man reads to Nana a section from “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allen Poe, which is also indicative of Godard’s very personal love for the actress who plays Nana.
Anna Karina plays the part and is a novel of genuine expression, believability, and life. The film’s greatness and power to convince us are largely due to her.
Fassbinder in an interview:
“There is one movie by Godard which I have seen twenty-seven times. This is Vivre sa vie. Together with Viridiana by Bunuel, it has been the most important film in my life.”