Vivre sa vie
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Twelve vignettes show a young woman's life as a Paris prostitute. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
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
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Top customer reviews
Nietzsche says that art is not an imitation of nature at all, but is rather a metaphysical supplement, raised along side Nature only to overcome Nature. I agree. And Godard seems to be on this wavelength, but would never reveal it. Closeness to the world in art is not art for Godard. Distancing, almost barricading the self from the world in order to come towards it with assurance and strength represents the artistic nature overagainst the non-artistic mundane, so-called real world.
Nana tries to transcend a Paris that is unkind to her, manipulative, and very dangerous. She does in a way overcome, retreat from the closeness to the world as a prostitute. But this life is too insistent on ignorance, irrationality, sickness, and death to be liberating. Nana hasn't the strength to be the actress she desires to be, could be. She is too close to oblivion, the way art can be threatened by oblivion, as Godard shows as he explores the relation between being driven by matter, things, people and their bad faith, and driving against the forces that threaten to obliterate the mind and its memories.
Beautifully acted, Vivre Sa Vie is a major benchmark in the history of cinema..indeed art.
Primarily, I wanted to see the Paris of 1962 again, the Paris of my first visit as a child, to smell the Gitanes and Gauloises, to see the people, the cafés, the streets; the true Paris before it became an imitation of itself. I still love Paris, and am conscious of some of the less positive changes, but choose to ignore them (as much as possible). I mention this because Paris is very much a character in the film and is the page upon which the story has been written. People who knew Paris in earlier years will especially appreciate it. There is even a great shot of people standing in line for Truffaut's "Jules et Jim". Shots like that give it somewhat a documentary feel, of being there in the present; and also it is somewhat of a time capsule of life in that time and place.
Secondly, I of course love Anna Karina who is incredibly beautiful and has such a lovely inner quality, plus her Danish accent drives French guys like me crazy (lol). But when you see the filmed interview that comes with the disc, you will see how different she is in "real life" and appreciate even more her work as an actress, even if the character of Nana was a co-creation with Godard. I wanted to see her in this film also because she was not yet really a big star, and I find there is less self-awareness in performance in the early part of a career, which is more interesting to watch.
Thirdly, I love the way Godard explores new ways of telling a story on film. This was the type of film-making that inspired me in film school, and there are so many lessons one can learn from him. I find watching his work really can open up one's mind, inspire creativity, and help one think outside the box. So many films today seem very packaged and formulaic, so Godard for me is particularly refreshing. Only 83 minutes long, this film seems to have more in it than some major epics.
The opening of the film looks a bit grainy, perhaps because of the low light exposure, and I wondered if the blu-ray made an appreciable difference in definition, but as the film continued I saw that the blu-ray does add to the clarity and was worth getting.
The story itself is tragic, so be prepared for that, even if there are some wonderful lighter moments. One's heart breaks for all the Nana's who have met the same fate, but even so, Nana takes full responsibility for her actions. Godard asserts that she was able to "keep her soul", but I doubt this is often true in real life. In any case, it is refreshing to see a film from a time when one could have a 10-minute philosophical discussion on film, which I think would not really even be possible in France today. Don't expect to be titillated though, and I greatly admire Godard for this, especially with the subject matter. Today everything would unfortunately have to be very graphic, but Nana never is shown in more than the beginning stages of undress or finishing dressing. There are a few nudes in one scene, but each is more like a brief "still life". As a result, the sordidness of the "profession" becomes very real and believable, and for me it is proof that in film too, less is more.
There are a few nice extras, such as the interviews with Karina, and film prof Jean Narboni. And there is an interesting documentary about prostitution in Paris at that time, including an interview with the author of the work upon which the film is based. I would have liked to have an interview with Godard from the period, but it is not on this disc. The film however is itself very telling about Godard and his feelings about filming Karina, his wife at that time; feelings he expresses in a voice-over reading of the "Oval Portrait" by Poe, a story of an artist and his muse. "Vivre Sa Vie" is very much such a story.