My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot
My Life to Live is an early yet wholly realized entry by Godard in the French New Wave style. I’m not really a fan of the French New Wave, and I’m definitely not really a fan of Godard, but I find My Life to Live rather captivating. It’s Godard before Godard went off the cinematic deep end, and honestly, if I had to recommend a film to start Godard’s repertoire with, it would be this one.
Told in twelve distinct tableaux, each with their own oddly antiquated title card, My Life to Live is about the young Parisian woman Nana, an aspiring actress. Nana (Karina) opens the film by breaking up with her boyfriend, Paul, but he was helping to support her; her job at a record store doesn’t pay her well enough, and on her own, she soon descends into prostitution. A run-in with an old friend who is also a prostitute introduces her to a pimp Raoul (Rebbot) and she all too easily seems to adjust to “The Life” (part of a play on the title of the film). In parts of certain episodes, she acts happy, but it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to realize she isn’t, and Nana’s doomed existence seems a matter of fact.
Godard was married to Karina when he filmed My Life to Live, and I think it shows. The way the camera moves around Nana, chronicling her life through her viewpoint, and yet always somehow exhibiting Karina’s almost alien-esque beauty is a sign of this. We get so many shots of her eyes, her mouth, her smile, her dark hair, her lithe frame, her profile. Karina is luminous in this film, and I think I’m a little entranced by her here. The camera is too, as it slowly pans back and forth, watching her as she talks to her pimp, or slowly zooms in and out on her face as she is talking to a friend.
Speaking of the camera, there is an odd lack of faces in this film. Take the opening scene where Nana breaks up with Paul. The two are sitting at the counter in a café, but they are shot from behind. We can see Nana’s face reflected in the mirror behind the counter only slightly, but we have no such reflection of Paul. Nana’s head moves, we know she is speaking, but the voice that answers her is almost disembodied. Other characters in the film get similar treatment. Nana listens to her friend recount how she started in prostitution, but it is about Nana listening and not the friend, as we rarely see her during this conversation. Godard foregoes two-shots in favor of clearly focusing on Karina as much as possible. When we do occasionally see the full face of another character, it is brief and almost surprising because we have gotten used to the backs of heads.
Significantly, the one character who gets the most face time in the film is an “extra,” French philosopher Brice Parain. Nana strikes up a conversation with him in a café when she is well-ensconced in her career of prostitution, but she quickly moves from trying to hit on him to simply discussing life with him. In this conversation, we focus far more on Parain, who talks about thought and life and love and age, with Nana only occasionally joining in. Because the camera focuses so much on Parain, perhaps this is saying that this man, this conversation, is one of the few moments in her life where Nana can focus on something other than herself. Perhaps the camera focuses so squarely on Nana, to the extent of even blocking out other characters, in the rest of the film to show Nana’s self-centered nature. But here, in this conversation, she is entirely present and paying attention to what someone else has to say. It’s a significant moment for both her and the film, as it precipitates a change in her approach to prostitution. After this conversation, sad Nana tries to break free from The Life, an attempt that clearly spells her doom.
The music is an interesting choice in My Life to Live, and just another example of Godard’s philosophy that film should be self-aware. There is a beautiful and incredibly sad sixteen bar theme that was written for the film, but that is the only piece of soundtrack score we ever hear. Occasionally it repeats and we hear it for more than a minute or so, but most of the time it comes in and simply plays the sixteen bars, then stops just as abruptly as it starts. We expect more, we want more, but Godard reminds us this is a score and not actually part of the events taking place on the screen, so why should it extend the length of the scene? I really hesitate to even call it a score or soundtrack, but it is a very lovely theme for a film.
Prostitution is treated with tremendous alienation in My Life to Live, essentially mirroring how Nana feels about what she’s doing. In the coldest segment of the film, Nana asks her pimp what “the rules” are regarding rooms, hours, fees, police regulation, and even abortions. It’s downright clinical, and through what is easily the shortest of the twelve parts of the film, Nana descends wholly into her “life.” The sex is clearly not shown (this is 1962 after all), and there is no glamour. Just as the Paris we see is littered and cheap, the sex is cold, almost utilitarian. There is no titillation about Nana’s profession, but neither is there a sense of yawning depression about her lot. It’s simply there, a banal, boring fact of Nana’s life.
As Nana is the clear focal character of the film, it’s odd that although I like her, I don’t love her, nor do I feel much sympathy for her, and yet that doesn’t stop me from rooting for her. Her life descends quickly at the beginning of the film into her situation, but she is also a bit cold and cruel. When she breaks up with Paul in the opening scene, she’s downright awful, and it’s a bit disconcerting how quickly she seems to adjust to prostitution. Is she likeable? I’m really not sure. And yet, on her side, she is moved to tears at the cinema by an intense scene from The Passion of Joan of Arc, she is fascinated with the philosopher, and despite her headstrongness taking her into the existence it did, she does not deserve her doom. To me, the final two “chapters” of the film make up its emotional crux. Nana starts to awaken from her existential stupor, but just as she does, she is stricken down by the trappings around her, bound to the life she has unwittingly buried herself in. It’s tragic, it really is.
Accessible in terms of a straightforward narrative yet inventive in terms of film philosophy without being absolutely insane, My Life to Live is a good starting place for Godard.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10