Vivre sa vie

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Anna Karina (Nana Kleinfrankenheim), Sady Rebbot (Raoul), André S. Labarthe (Paul), Guylaine Schlumberger (Yvette), Gérard Hoffman (Le chef), Monique Messine (Elisabeth), Paul Pavel (Journaliste), Dimitri Dineff (Dimitri), Peter Kassovitz (Le jeune homme), Eric Schlumberger (Luigi), Brice Parain (Le philosophe), Henri Attal (Arthur), Gilles Quéant (Premier client)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: France
Vivre sa vie Criterion Collection DVD
Vivre sa vieWhat is most intriguing about the early films of Jean-Luc Godard is how radically different they are, yet how they clearly emanate from the same guiding intelligence. His breakthrough first film, the French New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1959), was a shaky, discontinuous homage to American B-movies and gangster myths. His second film, Le petite soldat (1963), which was completed in 1960 but not released for three years due to French censorship, is a more straightforward war story set in Algeria that was the first of Godard’s films to deal explicitly with politics. With his third film, A Woman is a Woman (1962), Godard took a completely different approach in creating a light, playful, and cheerily nostalgic (although unconventional) paean to widescreen Technicolor musicals.

Which brings us to his fourth film, Vivre sa vie, which has been translated variously as My Life to Live and Her Life to Live. The film is both a mixture of elements from his previous films (the rough black-and-white existentialism of American B-movies from Breathless, the highly politicized backdrop of Le petite soldat, the female centrality of A Woman is a Woman) and a direct indicator of where Godard’s cinema would head in the next decade--specifically toward a more self-reflexive, socially aware brand of political filmmaking that was more essay than narrative. As the film’s subtitle Film en douze tableaux suggests, Vivre sa vie is structured around a dozen “tableaux” that chart the descent of an independent young woman from aspiring actress to prostitute. Godard has been long fascinated by prostitution, not only for its social and moral implications, but for its philosophical separation of mind and body, something he would explore even more directly in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), arguably his first true essay film.

The protagonist of Vivre sa vie is Nana K. (Anna Karina, Godard’s muse and then-wife in her third of seven collaborations with the director), to whom we are first introduced with her back to the camera in a café while she talks with her estranged husband Paul (André S. Labarthe). Aesthetically, this crucial opening scene establishes Godard’s purposeful reluctance to play by the rules of classical filmmaking, instead privileging rough direct sound, long takes, and having the star’s back to the camera for an extended period of time. Thematically, it emphasizes Nana’s strong sense of self: She is her own woman who plans to live her life by her own accord, which makes her both powerfully independent and ultimately tragic given the trajectory her life takes.

From there the story follows Nana as she struggles economically, failing to make ends meet by working in a record store (at one point she is locked out of her apartment), and eventually hooking up with a pimp named Raoul (Sady Rebbot) who introduces her to a life of prostitution. As a streetwalker, Nana is both subject and object, essentially using her sexuality to earn a living off men who desire her, but at the same time trapped in an economic system that exploits her and treats her like a commodity. One of the film’s most famous sequences depicts a montage of Nana’s daily routines as a prostitute while Raoul explains in voice-over narration the rules and rituals of her profession (avoiding the police, how often the sheets are changed at hourly rate hotels, how many men a prostitute averages per day, financial dealings, birth control, etc.), which are drawn directly from Marcel Sacotte’s 1959 sociological exposé La prostitution, from which Godard drew much of his inspiration and information.

Beautifully shot in stark black and white by cinematographer Raoul Coutard--who worked with Godard on 15 films, starting with Breathless--Vivre sa vie maintains the French New Wave’s characteristic aesthetic immediacy and location photography, emphasizing the story’s documentary aspects without sacrificing the narrative flow (Godard noted in writing the film that he simply wanted to “follow” Nana, not manipulate her, which suggests a documentary-like desire). Granted, it is hardly a conventional narrative, given as it is to meandering subplots and long dialogue sequences that have no real narrative impact, but instead elucidate the film’s underlying philosophical premises (chief among these is a sequence in which Nana K. has a long conversation about language and truth with a man played by French philosopher Brice Parain).

Godard is clearly in love with Anna Karina, and his camera treats her with a kind of glowing reverence; her close-ups in the film have been compared to those of silent film stars Louise Brooks and Lillian Gish, as well as Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929), whom Nana watches and identifies with in a movie theater. That undeniable passion behind the camera leaks through the lens and burns itself into the celluloid, making Nana’s tragic downward spiral all the more affecting despite Godard’s constant insertion of Brechtian distanciation (documentary-like narration, title cards, sudden and awkward silences, allowing Karina to stare directly into the camera). In a sense, Vivre sa vie contains the best of Godard, both the intellectual and the emotional, and it clearly signaled a new direction in what would turn out to be one of the most astounding careers in modern cinema.

Vivre sa vie Criterion Collection DVD
Vivre sa vie is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
  • Video interview with film scholar Jean Narboni
  • Television interview from 1962 with actress Anna Karina
  • Excerpts from a 1961 French television exposé on prostitution
  • Illustrated essay on La prostitution
  • Stills gallery
  • Godard’s original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring Godard’s original scenario, an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, interviews with Godard, and a reprint by critic Jean Collet on the film’s soundtrack
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateApril 20, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s beautiful new high-definition transfer of Vivre sa vie was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored with MTI’s DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (slightly windowboxed, unfortunately), the image is sharp and clean throughout, with almost no signs of dirt or damage. The image maintains a slight veneer of grain that gives it a film-like appearance, but without compromising any of the detail. The film’s memorable direct soundtrack, which was captured entirely during filming with no postproduction editing or manipulation, was remastered at 24-bit from the optical prints and digitally restored. Granted, it sounds a bit rough and parts of the dialogue are sometimes obscured by atmospheric sounds, but that is the intent, and it isn’t marred with any ambient hiss or aural defects.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Australian film scholar Adrian Martin’s illuminating audio commentary was recorded in 2006 for the “Directors Suite” DVD of Vivre sa vie produced by Madman Entertainment (Martin is apparently quite the prolific audio commentator, having recorded commentaries for nearly 30 films from such directors as Claude Chabrol, Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger, and Orson Welles). Martin’s comments are insightful in elucidating Godard’s artistry and politics, and it certainly adds to one’s appreciation of both the film itself and Godard’s career as a whole. Also included on the disc is a 45-minute video interview with film scholar Jean Narboni, conducted by historian Noël Simsolo, a 1962 television interview with Anna Karina, and 22 minutes of excerpts from a 1961 French television exposé on prostitution. In addition, there is an illustrated essay on La prostitution, the book that served as inspiration for the film, complete with scans of the book itself; an extensive stills gallery of production photos and international poster designs; and Godard’s original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet features Godard’s original scenario (originally published in Film Culture), an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, interviews with Godard, and a reprint of an essay by critic Jean Collet about the film’s soundtrack.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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