Life Through A Lens: Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) – Blu-ray review
Life, Godard-style. In theory: cold, bleak and alienated. In practice: exuberant, imaginative and fleet of foot.
Vivre Sa Vie
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
Few directors worked as fast as Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s; fewer still achieved such consistency of quality against such diversity of output. Vivre Sa Vie looks and feels nothing like, say, Alphaville or Pierrot Le Fou (just to take a couple of examples which share this film’s star, Anna Karina) but it has the same artistic cool, the same ambition to reconfigure cinema.
The title translates as My Life To Live and, on-screen, it’s bitterly ironic, as Godard documents 12 chapters in the hard life of prostitute Nana. As a film, though, that title is practically Godard’s manifesto. This is moviemaking unbound by regular practice, changing style from vignette to vignette, ranging from Brechtian coldness (the opening, in which Nana conducts a long argument with her back to us) to joie de vivre (her infectious, delirious dance around a pool table). Elements of genre pop up randomly; art and philosophy are debated; and a whole life is mapped out over those 12 chapters.
On one level, the film can be read as exactly what it is: a feminist tract about the terrible, limited choices open to women. Nana has a job that barely provides enough to pay the rent; it is hinted that she has a child she never sees; only her beauty is an avenue to riches, be it making it big as an actress or turning tricks. There’s a soulful intensity to Karina’s wide, moist eyes given greater power because of how often Godard cuts around them, so that when she stares, we notice.
But Godard is toying with ideas about the inherent exploitation of cinema, and it’s no coincidence that Karina has a tearful Epiphany watching Falconetti in The Passion Of The Christ – a famously brutal shoot about an even more famously brutal moment in history. There is a tragic inevitability to men’s callous control over and disregard for women; during one sequence, Godard borrows Dreyer’s close-ups for a montage of hands, shoulders, and cash, highlighting the transactional nature of sex.
It is bleak stuff and, given its structure, it should have been coldly analytical – yet it is redeemed by the sheer cinematic vision and the surprising tenderness of Godard’s direction. The key exchanges occur near the end: Nana has a coffee shop chat with an elderly philosopher who tells her that thought cannot exist without speech; later her lover reads her an extract from Poe about a portrait that eclipses the beauty, and then the life, of its subject. The film is working in exactly the same way: cinema is a means of thought without speech (again, the use of a silent film is instructive), while Godard’s portraiture of Karina – who, let’s not forget, was his wife in real life – attains a nobility and grandeur that has deepened with time. The actress has joined her character in death, but she remains vividly alive on screen. In cinema, her life really is her own.