Twelve uneven vignettes form Godard’s loosely-structured tale of a woman’s descent into prostitution, made with the creative spirit of some of his best works.
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
1962 | France | Drama | 85 mins | 1.37:1 | French
NC16 (passed clean) for some nudity
Cast: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, André S. Labarthe
Plot: Twelve episodic tales in the life of a Parisian woman and her slow descent into prostitution.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize & Pasinetti Award (Venice)
Source: Wide Management
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Vignette/Episodic
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 22 Jul 2016)
Some think this is Godard’s finest film, but personally, Vivre sa vie (or ‘My Life to Live’) didn’t work that well for me, at least when compared to the seminal Breathless (1960) and Band of Outsiders (1964), one of my genuine favourites. Still, that doesn’t mean that I dislike it—I just find it more difficult to resonate with.
Starring the ravishingly beautiful Anna Karina, Vivre sa vie is a loosely-structured tale of her character’s descent into prostitution. With hopes of becoming an actress, Nana finds that life is a struggle. In need of money to survive, and seeing her romance with a guy fading away, she finds solace in selling her body to men.
In one scene, we see her holding vigil in a cinema playing Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is deeply affective for her, finding inner connection to a moment that has been permanently etched in celluloid. In a film of many disparate scenes, this one struck me as capturing the crossroads between one woman’s aspirations (to be part of a larger, historical and artistic process that acting gives) and hopelessness (a sense of futility that life will never match cinema’s eternal power).
“The more one talks, the less the words mean.”
There are twelve vignettes to be precise, most of which fade out with philosophical musings. Godard’s attempt to play with structure leaves something to be desired—the vignettes are uneven and meandering, even if they reveal some extraordinary scenes to behold.
In particular, the sexy pool table strut to music from a jukebox by the seductive Nana is every bit as stunning as the ‘Madison dance’ in Band of Outsiders, proving how cool and stylish Godard’s early cinema can be. Despite being loosely-structured, and deliberately shot by the great Raoul Coutard in as anti-classical a style as possible (e.g. countless long takes, 360-degree slow spin, blocking of actor’s face during conversation etc.), the best way to look at Vivre sa vie is to see it as a piece on female transience.
A woman comes, a woman goes. Such is her existence; such is her life to live. Nana was not born of privilege; neither was she destined to succeed. Through Vivre sa vie, Godard tries to make us empathize with her and her decisions. Then he yanks it all away in a sickening show of masculinity—via men and their favourite (phallic) toy—with no room for remorse. Is that Nana’s moment on the big screen? Where then is her eternal glory?