Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Anna Karina (Nana Kleinfrankenheim), Sady Rebbot (Raoul), André S Labarthe (Paul), Guylaine Schlumberger (Yvette)
Vivre Sa Vie is a film I almost decided I was going to like before I really saw it. You know when you just know something is going to speak to you? Quite how I came to want to see it is still a little bit of a mystery to me. I have very indistinct memories of watching a documentary which featured a segment on the film. In it they played a clip of Anna Karina as Nana dancing as she does to music from a jukebox in a billiards room. It’s a wonderful scene, but from this kernel (I can’t remember what the documentary was, when I saw it or even where) came a desire to seek out the movie and give it a go.
Based on a book by Marcel Scotte and subtitled Film en Douze Tableaux (‘film in twelve scenes’) Vivre Sa Vie is unsurprisingly an episodic experience. Divided by intertitles which essentially tell us the bones of the fairly sparse narrative, Godard’s film lives up to its subtitle. It feels, at times, like twelve short films all connected thematically. Each section is delivered with intensely stylised directorial vigor. It is as much about Godard and his camera as it is about central character Nana, a French record shop girl who turns to a life of prostitution.
The opening titles themselves set up this strange love affair between Godard and Nana (Karina was Godard’s wife). Crisp white credits do their duties whilst Godard cuts between different angles on Nana’s head, showing us her from all sides. Asking us to look at the light in the frame and how it changes how we see her. Right away she is a model in a tableaux, and that is how we will follow her and everyone else. This is Godard’s dollhouse.
Scene 1 then teases us by denying us this captivating figure. A conversation in a cafe between Nana and her husband Paul is shot entirely from behind them. It’s against the rules we’re used to. Cinema has taught us to favour faces. Here we’re presented with shoulders, hair, occasionally when they turn to face one another a glimmer of cheek or an eyelash. They are reflected in the mirror behind the bar, but this copy of them is far away, small in the frame and blurred. We don’t know them well enough yet. A game of pinball allows us profiles but still largely they are seen from behind. Godard intends to peel away layers, as outlined by dialogue direct from the scene:
“A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside, remove the inside and you see the soul”.
Does Vivre Sa Vie make it so far? By the end do we see Nana’s soul? Godard’s prowess with composition never lets us forget we are watching a film. Thus, every angle or camera movement draws attention to itself, making Vivre Sa Vie an aesthetically gorgeous viewing experience, but at the same time something of a detached one. In a way this is entirely fitting however, as Nana initially seems utterly detached from the world herself.
But perhaps that’s not quite correct. The greater impression as the film sinks in is of a woman simply accepting the injustices of the world, even embracing her own perceived destruction. When Nana meets her friend Yvette she underlines that her choices are her own responsibility. Her downfall is her own choosing. “Escape is a pipe dream,” she says. Godard’s film suggests that some people accept the worst in life because it is easier than fighting for something better.
There is something profoundly sad about that, and at the same time strangely beautiful in a fatalistic sort of way. As beautiful as Anna Karina’s crystalline features, presented to us finally in scene 2. Those disarming eyes. Karina carries the film, drawing our attention wherever she is.
In a particularly bold move, the third section of the film sees Nana going to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s film literally takes over Godard’s. We watch it as Nana does. A film within a film. Godard here reminds us that his movie is as much about being a cinephile as it is about its own story. Within the film, Nana relates to the suffering of Joan of Arc, and thus Godard’s bold move works. The inclusion of The Passion of Joan of Arc works on both levels – as another reminder of film and its artifice, and as a further layer of Nana. Her tears during this portent of death are devastating. She seems completely laid bare.
Further experiments with form follow. When gunfire erupts in the street in scene 6, the camera pans to it in staccato jumps, mirroring the sounds of the bullets. Later, in scene 7, a conversation between Nana and her new pimp Raoul takes place with them squashed down into the bottom half of the frame, Godard’s camera swerving around Raoul’s shoulders to find different angles on Nana instead of making cuts. It again draws attention to itself whilst allowing the performances to feel more naturalistic. Artifice and character immersion hand in hand. And after this? Scene 8 is all montage and narration. You’d accuse Godard of showing off if it wasn’t all so richly enjoyable.
Scene 9 offers up the jukebox dancing scene I had been initially drawn to. It’s one of those pure moments where cinema is simply just captivating. Words fail me to do it justice. Quentin Tarantino was unquestionably taking notes when writing Uma Thurman’s character Mia Wallace for Pulp Fiction. It is the joyous apex of the film. From here Godard clouds the sky and Nana’s frivolous decisions seem sadder, more severe. As the intertitle for scene 10 suggests, “Happiness is no fun.”
In this final stretch Nana philosophises with a stranger, an old man, who discusses with her how words and thoughts are inseparable. She is unnerved by this, afraid that language may not be up to the task of explaining the complexities of thought. Writing about Vivre Sa Vie brings about the same fears in myself. Articulating its strange beauty feels out of my grasp. I need new words.
Vivre Sa Vie‘s sudden, almost perfunctory end is something of a jolt. We should’ve seen it coming from Godard. Playful as he has been here there was no question that we’d be thrown for a loop for his own amusement. The matter of fact finality is fitting however, even if it is jarring. One can imagine it was all foreseen by Nana when she was watching The Passsion of Joan of Arc. In that moment she saw the rest of her life, the scenes that we’ve been shown. She cries for her fate but follows the path anyway, for, as we’ve seen watching it, the descent is too beautiful to miss. I’ll wrap up now. As Nana says, “the more one talks, the less the words mean”. Vivre Sa Vie is out there, and I urge you to see it.