Amanda Mae Meyncke April 12, 2010
Vivre Sa Vie opens with a quote: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Somehow nothing has ever sounded so decadent, so richly filled with meaning; it’s a perfect appetizer to a film filled with the lending and giving of one’s self. Never have I been so keenly aware of the male gaze as when I am watching a Jean-Luc Godard film. Women play to the camera the way they play their whole life to the constant audience of men — soft eyes, thoughtful glances, the pretense of being alone when one knows one is being looked at and admired. In Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Godard hones this trait, installing the camera as a friend and confidant in the life of a young woman drawn into prostitution.
A coquettish young woman, Nana (Anna Karina), leaves her husband and young child to pursue a life as an actress, but struggles to make ends meet. Nana isn’t bad, she isn’t good, she just exists — and with as much boredom and playful curiosity as any beautiful twentysomething Parisian girl might. She works at a record store, she likes to go to the movies. Her viewing of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc impacts her deeply, and in the dark of the theater her face mirrors that of Joan, tears streaming down a beautiful and illumined face. Eventually, through nonchalance and need, Nana finds herself drawn into prostitution as a means of supporting herself and living her own life. We watch her through her various conquests, though nothing salacious by any means, and find ourselves shocked when Godard ends the film unexpectedly.
If this all sounds very dramatic, it isn’t. Only movies are dramatic, real life merely happens. And this film feels remarkably like life must have. Prostitution isn’t glamorous, there’s a mundane side to things. Similarly, not every conversation can be an earth-shattering one. During their discussions, Nana’s husband isn’t furious, he’s hurt; they still see one another occasionally, and her slide into prostitution is nothing more than a nod at a willing man, then leading him to the hotel room and accepting the money. We aren’t allowed to know her thoughts through much of the film. Nana is introspective, and we are reminded time and again that we are existing alongside her, walking in step with her as she uncovers her life. The camera watches Nana with a soft, lingering glance that takes some time to get used to, as accustomed as we are to quick cuts and fast shots. It’s remarkable how quickly I found my mind wandering, and I would have to call it back to attention. The film can be mesmerizing as we listen in on philosophical discussions or frank statistics regarding prostitution. We are active, the camera often moves to and fro, as if pacing around the room, while the action takes place statically. The film is a breezy 83 minutes in length, divided into 12 subsections. These subsections become easy to anticipate, as they are all very nearly identical in length, and it’s surprising when it’s all over.
Godard makes excellent use of Anna Karina, his wife at the time, exploring her porcelain face with the tenderness of new love. Karina was a frequent muse, and several scenes in Vivre Sa Vie reminded me of their later film Made in U.S.A., which was shot only a few years later. In that film Karina looks hardened and used, the demise of their marriage evident throughout. In Vivre Sa Vie, she leans against a wall, smoking and engaging with passersby. In Made in U.S.A. this simple action seems filled with villainy and coldhearted, self-centered behavior. Many other smaller moments of grace are to be found in Vivre Sa Vie as well — Godard is obviously fascinated by Karina, hoping to capture all that she is, to hold it down and preserve it for all time. But, even then, he seemed to know that she was merely being lent to him for a time.
This is a great film that deserves a Criterion release, and they seem to be slowly releasing all of Godard with plenty of care and attention. It is such a treat to see something really well-designed; the packaging is so simple, classic, and lovely from the composition of the cover to the font selection. There are lovely large photographs in the booklet, and more supplementals than can be sifted through in a single afternoon. The booklet begins with the original scenario Jean-Luc Godard wrote for Vivre Sa Vie, followed by the Michael Atkinson essay that highlights so many of my own thoughts and questions about Anna Karina and Godard. After this is a 1962 interview with Godard himself discussing Renoir and Brechtian influences on the film. (As a friend of mine said, he used to think Godard was pretentious and boring, and after he saw Vivre Sa Vie he realized Godard was only pretentious.) For a director to discuss his own work is a rare gift, and Godard explains himself well: “…I think that as soon as people see something a little unusual on the screen, they try too hard to understand. They understand perfectly well, really, but they want to understand even more.” Another piece of writing from 1962 by Jean Collet discusses the soundtrack and finishes the booklet. And the supplementals on the disc itself! An intimidating display to be sure: audio commentary from Adrian Martin, video interviews with Anna Karina, and a few essays and documentaries on prostitution itself that influenced Godard. A stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer round out the release. While I can’t outline the precise process by which Blu-ray is rendered, I will say the picture is clear and the sound is exceptional. I never noticed how distracting it can be to watch some films with the picture all scratched up and the sound clicking and popping. Blu-ray takes the frustration out of the process and presents you with exactly what the director saw and wanted you to see.
Vivre Sa Vie is a lesser known Godard film, filled with some seemingly amateur moments, but it’s a worthy film for all who will lend themselves to understanding it. Though it lacks the punch and wallop of his later work, there’s something profoundly moving about the film, as if Godard has created something beyond even his own understanding.
Vivre Sa Vie is available April 20 from the Criterion Collection.
Categories: DVDTags: Criterion collection, Jean-luc godard, Vivre sa vie