VIVRE SA VIE
(My Life to Live)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production: Films de la Pléiade; black and white, 35mm; running time: 85 minutes. Released September 1962, Paris. Filmed 1960 in Paris.
Producer: Pierre Braumberger; screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard with additional narrative from Judge Marcel Sacotte's Où en est la prostitution and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Oval Portrait"; photography: Raoul Coutard; editors: Agnès Guillemot and Lila Lakshmanan; sound: Guy Vilette and Jacques Maumont; sound editor: Lila Lakshmanan; music: Michel Legrand; costume designer: Christiane Fage.
Cast: Anna Karina ( Nana ); Sady Rebbot ( Raoul ); André S. Labarthe ( Paul ); Guylaine Schlumberger ( Yvette ); Gérard Hoffmann ( The cook ); Monique Messine ( Elizabeth ); Paul Pavel ( Journalist ); Dimitri Dineff ( Dimitri ); Peter Kassowitz ( Young man ); Eric Schlumberger ( Luigi ); Brice Parain ( The philosopher ); Henri Attal ( Arthur ); Gilles Quéant ( A man ); Odile Geoffrey ( Barmaid ); Marcel Charton ( Policeman ); Jack Florency ( Bystander ); Gisèle Hauchecorne ( Concierge ); Jean-Luc Godard ( Voice ).
Venice Film Festival, Special Jury Prize, and the Italian Critics Prize,
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* * *
Jean-Luc Godard's fourth feature-length film, Vivre sa vie , forms the second shutter of a diptych with A bout de souffle (1959). The latter had rewritten the American studio tradition through the filter of French literature and philosophy. Vivre sa vie goes in the same direction but with sharper visual impact and keen filmic control. Its composition externalizes to an extreme degree many obsessions found in all of Godard's work. A Brechtian experiment in aesthetic and political distance, it uses the theme of prostitution to bind a number of formal experiments that touch on a variety of problems, including the relation of art and lithography to cinema, the depressing squalor of an all-encompassing zone of tastelessness comprising modern life (hence the film's allegiance to Baudelaire and to Apollinaire), the breakdown of intimacy and experience as valid measures of morality, the interfilmic mix of allusions saturating single shots and entire sequences, and the break-up of the illusion of perspective, by which words and image form an immensely ambiguous hieroglyph of contemporary life, taken from cinema, the backdrop of advertising, billboards, and newspapers.
Few of Godard's films attain the same rigor of rhythm in their play of sound and image, or their formal camera movement, as Vivre sa vie . Raoul Coutard, Godard's cameraman, insists on keeping a medium distance between the lens and Anna Karina, who plays the role of an exemplary, almost sacred—but very common—female who, because of economic circumstances, is forced into prostitution. She becomes a martyr in her own film. In the first sequence, he shoots the backsides of Karina and her husband as they sit apart on barstools in a café and face a mirror on the wall in front of them. The camera pans indifferently to the left and right as the futile expression of their speech shows no ostensible explanation for the dilemma. The failed meeting is conveyed by a camera that cannot reach an intimate rapport with the characters' faces. Ensuing tableaux have the camera standing fixed for long periods of time (following Nana's pen, in extreme close-up, as she writes a marginally literate letter of application for employment), or tracing a dolly of 180 degrees from profile to the front of Nana's face as she stares at her pimp who is indentified with the sightlines of the viewer. She sits in front of a wallpapered vista of Paris, copied from a painting in the Impressionist style, that flattens the heritage of art prevailing throughout the film. Tableaux vivants are seen in Nana's mimicry of Degas's absinthe lady seated in a café, Manet's bar at the Folies-Bergère, Van Gogh's taverns by night, and Monet's cityscapes.
Like A bout de souffle, Vivre sa vie is filmed in silence (in Parisian streets), with on-location noise (in record shops or in the clatter of cafés), with ruptures of music and silence (melodies being started and stopped without any cues from the image track), with speech detached from the image-track (a voice describing prostitution in a flat documentary style off camera while the shots register hands fumbling for pocket money or latching onto doorknobs), or with uncanny matches (the jukebox plays vivacious notes when Nana presses her body against it in the famous mating dance in the pool hall). The film makes a plastic collage of musical and filmed fragments.
Citing Montaigne on the urgency of experience (that is, of the need to draw life from death) at the outset, Godard cuts the story of Nana's life into 12 stations of sainthood. Nana's death, shot in front of a "Café des Studios" in a suburban zone, casually depicts the heroine falling to the asphalt between two cars; it also tells of metaphysical stress that sustains all of Godard's work, from A bout de souffle to Je vous salue, Marie , 25 years later. Vivre sa vie underscores an obsession with mimesis, defined in strict accord with the roots of prostitution, in the ways the film works through the etymology of prostatuere. In its theology of visibility, it makes of prostitution a matter of "standing forward": to reveal oneself to others, to "come into view" from anonymity, in a sort of cinematic ecce homo , entails the heroine's demise. An interview with a philosopher stages Nana as an everywoman who queries Brice Parain (who plays himself) on the relations of words, things, and existence to action. A comic and pathetic register is attained. Godard reaches religious and Marxian undertones as well, confirmed in a remarkable sequence, just prior to the last tableau, when Nana's new lover, a young man (banal as all the men who figure in his work), reads excerpts from Baudelaire's translation of Poe's "The Oval Portrait." The passage treats of the stakes of doubling (and dubbing) a picture with words, and of the dialectic of the two, by which a narrative is finished at the price of the death of the woman portrayed. "The Oval Portrait" becomes Vivre sa vie en abyme. Godard's voice actually reads Poe by way of Baudelaire; the young man's face, covered to eye level by the book, affords no lipsynch: Godard, the male character, Baudelaire, and Poe are all part of the same travesty. Because the quotation is doubled with English subtitles that bear the "original" of Poe, the film reveals its own essence of ventriloquism. The relation of words to image is complicated by the same subtitles that offset the illusion of a "true" image or voice.
The film is a venturous mix of allusions. Godard cites Dreyer's close-ups of the martyrdom of Falconetti in shots taken from The Passion of Joan of Arc. Nana sees Dreyer's film in a Left Bank theater and cries in apparent sympathy for Joan/Falconetti. Already in A bout de souffle Jean Seberg had been aligned with the saint of Dreyer's film. That after the sequence-filming of The Passion of Joan of Arc Falconetti suffered a nervous breakdown and became a prostitute is well known; that Godard uses the reference to "script" the end of his own marriage to Karina, through allusion to Catherine Hessling in Renoir's Nana (of 1925), effectively complicates the quotation. It makes the sensuous close-ups of Anna (the anagram of Nana) all the more powerful in the ambivalent rapport of allusion, self-consciousness, and film history in Godard's long autobiography of cinema.