Vivre sa vie was a turning point for Jean-Luc Godard and remains one of his most dynamic films, combining brilliant visual design with a tragic character study. The lovely Anna Karina, Godard’s greatest muse, plays Nana, a young Parisian who aspires to be an actress but instead ends up a prostitute; her downward spiral is depicted in a series of discrete tableaux of daydreams and dances. Featuring some of Karina and Godard’s most iconic moments—from her movie theater vigil with The Passion of Joan of Arc to her seductive pool-hall strut—Vivre sa vie is a landmark of the French New Wave that still surprises at every turn.
Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave were at the height of their power and creativity when Godard released Vivre Sa Vie (Living Her Life) in 1962. And watching it again, years later, instantly transports one to the era where an offhand remark, a lazy circle of cigarette smoke, a sidelong glance, a disaffected "I don't care about you" could all communicate deep, conflicted longing, alienation, postwar malaise, and infinite possibility. In fact, watching Vivre Sa Vie, starring Godard's lovely muse, Anna Karina, is at once both enervating--and exhilarating. The film is subtitled Film en Douze Tableaux, and the story shows Karina as Nana in 12 different short films, snapshots of her lonely, seemingly aimless life--in scenes that stay with the viewer for days afterward. In the very first tableau, Nana and a former lover, Paul (André S. Labarthe), are having a sad, disjointed conversation in a café--are they breaking up? Getting back together? The pain and power of the scene lies in its ambiguousness. And Godard and his brilliant cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, shoot this initial scene, of the most intimate conversation between two lovers, entirely from behind them. The sad, longing remarks, barbs, halfhearted entreaties--they are all communicated while the viewer looks just at the back of Karina's sleek black bob and Labarthe's scruffy hair. Only near the end of that scene, as the viewer is practically craning forward to connect to the characters, do we get a glimpse of half of a cheek, one eyebrow. And from this moment, Godard and the cast have the viewer enthralled. In a later tableau, we watch long, uninterrupted scenes of The Passion of Joan of Arc--in itself a treat--and the supposedly disaffected heroine Nana weeping rivers of tears, silently, in the theater. There are many layers to this lovely young woman, and each of the 12 snapshots of her life reveals more. Nana's life becomes a tragedy, as she descends into prostitution--yet along the way, her luminescence is revealed in small ways. In one scene, she recalls a writing exercise from when she was a child. "Birds are creatures with an outside, and an inside," she recites. "When you remove the outside, you see the inside. When you remove the inside, you see the soul." The shattering beauty of Vivre Sa Vie is that Godard and Karina allow us to see the outside, then the inside, and then finally, the soul. The Criterion Collection edition offers true cinema riches, especially in an interview with Karina from 1962, several modern commentaries putting Godard and the film in its historical context, reportage from early-'60s France on the dire situation of prostitutes at the time, a booklet of film criticism, and much more. --A.T. Hurley