Vivre Sa Vie (Criterion)
Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.
Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.
For a political radical, Godard was quite the conservative moralist when it came to women in his films of the sixties; where his male rebels were a mix of lovable criminals, charming cads and doomed individualists, his women are consistently flighty, shallow and ultimately disloyal, betraying the men in their lives in ways large (Patricia betrays Michel to the police in Breathless) or small (Karina’s character cheats on her husband in A Woman is a Woman). This is especially true when Godard’s personal life was in such emotional chaos: Karina wanted to leave him and he was desperate to hold onto her. You could say this was both his offering (to make her a serious actress) and his warning to her. (Spoiler alert) After all, Nana opens the film by leaving her husband to follow her dream as an actress and ends up herself betrayed, abandoned and dead, the victim of callous, thoughtless, brutally impersonal violence. (end spoiler alert) For a film that proclaims itself with the title “To live life” (translated as My Life to Live for U.S. release), it is awfully judgmental. Whose life to live is it anyway? (As an aside, I was brought back to Richard Brody’s excellent Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after reviewing the film and his rich mix of biography and aesthetic observation makes some excellent observations on Godard’s problematic portrayal of women in relation to his personal life. A well-researched and well-written book and I highly recommend it.)
Yet his conflicted emotional life aside, Godard was challenging himself to try making films in a different way and discovering a whole new set of expressive tools that would define his subsequent career. The handheld camera was gone and with it the on-the-fly momentum and improvisational immediacy of Breathless and A Woman is a Woman, replaced by a formal beauty and control that Godard develops into an evolving aesthetic. After breaking free of conventional filmmaking techniques, he reappropriates them on his own terms and announces so in his opening scene, a conversation between Nana and the husband she is leaving (to follow her acting dream) shot from behind: no faces, merely the backs of their heads intercut in shots that abstract the scene and break any immediate emotional attachment. Coutard’s camera may love Karina but the film keeps us from connecting with her, making Nana more of an object under scrutiny than a full-blooded character, and his distinctive long, still takes (often with characters slipping in and out of the frame) and tracking shots become the stylistic foundation of his later, more political cinema.
Vivre sa vie was originally released on DVD over a decade ago by Fox Lorber in a poorly-mastered edition. Criterion’s edition is beautifully mastered from the restoration that Rialto distributed a couple of years ago and they do their usual painstaking job on the nearly flawless digital master for both the DVD and Blu-ray editions. Both versions feature all the supplements. Film scholar Adrian Martin provides commentary, directly addressing Godard’s formal techniques and thematic concerns as the film rolls on in an informed but accessible presentation. Also includes a 45-minute video interview with film scholar Jean Narboni conducted by historian Noël Simsolo, an archival 1962 TV interview with a relaxed Anna Karina (11 minutes) discussing her struggles as an actress and her relationship with Godard, an excerpt from a 1961 French television exposé on prostitution, excerpts from the non-fiction book that inspired the film (shown as snapshots of the untranslated pages of text and photos) and Godard’s original trailer for the film among the supplements. The accompanying booklet features an original essay by Michael Atkinson, a print interview with Godard from 1962 and an archival essay on Godard’s use of sound.