Director: Jean-Luc Godard | 80 minutes | drama | Actors: Sady Rebbot, Anna Karina, André S. Labarthe, Guylaine Schlumberger, Gérard Hoffman, Monique Messine, Paul Pavel, Dimitri Dineff, Peter Kassovitz, Eric Schlumberger, Brice Parain, Henri Attal, Gilles Quéant
The Godard classic “Vivre sa vie” (1962) is perhaps best seen today as a love letter to Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina. The then very young Anna plays Nana, a young woman who aspires to a career as an actress, but ends up as a prostitute. Godard makes his wife look like legendary 1920s and 1930s actress Louise Brooks with her short haircut and sleek bangs. Nana looks meek and gloomy, and seems to have walked straight out of a silent film and ended up in the Paris of the sixties. And just as Louise Brooks fell into disgrace, due to the shocking theme of her films at the time, it does not end well with Nana either, she literally ends up in the gutter.
With a few exceptions, it is Nana who we always see pontifically in the picture, and often very close to the skin, as in the opening images in which we see her head for minutes from the left, then from the front, from the right and finally from the back. Just as Nana is prostituted by her pimp, Anna Karina is subjected by Godard to the eager looks of the audience. And as if she knows she is being watched by us, she looks straight into the camera twice, deliberately breaking the fourth wall.
“Vivre sa vie” is special because of Anna Karina, and also special because of the unconventional camera work. The heavy Mitchell camera is actually the second protagonist (and even mentioned in the opening titles): a silent and fickle character who turns away in the middle of a dialogue to fix his eyes on something else. Or cannot stand still and constantly shifts perspective. The use of this heavy Mitchell camera went against the documentary-style trend of the Cinéma Vérité, where portable cameras were preferred. In “Vivre sa vie”, on the other hand, the camera moves stately, distant, and with a certain aplomb.
Despite the heavy theme, Nana’s downfall takes on something ethereal. It is not without reason that Godard has Nana watch Jeanne d’Arc in the cinema in “La passion de Jeanne d’Arc” (1928), which is similarly plunged into disaster by evil men’s hands, but braves her fate in a religious daze.
Stylistically, “Vivre sa vie” is not always balanced. In addition, the dialogues sometimes feel a bit dated. The scene in which philosopher Brice Parain contrasts an argument about language with Nana, was completely in keeping with the zeitgeist at the time, but now comes across as somewhat forced. Just in that scene Nana looks straight into the camera again, and we get the feeling that she thinks the same way.
While Nana is abandoned by everyone else, Godard asks the viewer to fall a little in love with his vulnerable, chain-smoking character, and for those who succeed, “Vivre sa vie” is at its best.