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TCM Imports - July 2018
Remind Me

Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live)

There was a time, back in the first half of the 1960s, when Jean-Luc Godard was the most talked about and exciting filmmaker on the scene, reinventing cinema and inspiring passionate dialogue about his work and about the art of motion pictures. French journalist Jean Clay, writing in 1963, described the polarizing effect of Godard's films and reputation by noting that he was both "the most idolized of the New Wave directors" and "the most unpopular man in the French cinema." In America, students and cineastes waited in long lines at festivals and art film theaters to see each new Godard work, responding to both his radical style of filmmaking and his evocation of old Hollywood genres.

Having drawn from the iconography of the gangster picture in Breathless/À bout de souffle (1960) and fracturing the musical in A Woman Is a Woman/Une femme est une femme (1961), Godard turned to a subject suitable for a woman's melodrama in Vivre sa vie/My Life to Live (1962): the decline and fall of a young wife who decides to strike out on her own, eventually descending into prostitution and a violent death. But what Godard created from this, as with his earlier films, was far from the mere upending of a Hollywood genre. Critic Andrew Sarris called it "the most profoundly modern film of the year," and philosopher-critic Susan Sontag wrote: "It triumphs because it is intelligent, discreet, delicate to the touch. ... It is about what is most important...the nature of our humanity."

The movie was shot on location in Paris in early 1962 over a four-week period, although Godard put the production on hiatus the entire second week while he thought and reflected on what he was doing, a schedule that irritated cast and crew, who sat idle wondering when he would start shooting again. Although he had begun to move away from improvisation after finishing his second feature, Le petit soldat (completed in 1960 but banned from release until 1963) and saw the advantages of shooting from a completed script, Godard had also learned to accept that his method was based on spontaneous creativity and often required last-minute writing, even as his actors were getting dressed and made up for a scene.

David Sterritt's insightful book The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible (Cambridge University Press, 1999) describes Godard's intention and process during the making of Vivre sa vie, creating an unconventional narrative that explored what the director would later term théâtre-vérité: "By this he meant a sort of 'theatrical realism' that combines the arbitrariness of stage drama--unfolding in continuous 'blocks' that cannot be 'retouched' by the director--with film's unique ability to capture 'chance' events in a 'definitive' way." The remarkable cinematography is by Raoul Coutard, Godard's collaborator on 16 films between Breathless and First Name: Carmen (1983).

Working toward this approach, Godard planned his production to shoot each scene one time only. "If retakes were necessary, it was no good," he said. He also shot scenes in the order they would appear in the finished film, unlike the usual practice of filming not chronologically but in whatever order shooting conditions, the use of locations, and other factors dictated. The footage was assembled with a minimum of cutting. "All I had to do was put the shots end to end," he said. "What the crew saw at the rushes is more or less what the public sees."

The film's star, Danish-born actress Anna Karina, to whom Godard was married from 1961 to 1967, was frequently disconcerted by his shooting methods, "a little unhappy because she never really knew beforehand what she would have to do," he said. Nevertheless, Karina gives arguably her best performance in Vivre sa vie, revealing the humanity of her character in small, subtle details, rather than through obvious melodramatic effects designed to play for audience identification and sympathy. Together, Karina and Godard bring off a sense of what Sterritt calls mystery and adventure as they attempt, in Godard's words, "to film a thought in action."

Early on in the movie, Karina's character Nana describes her aspirations to be in motion pictures, noting her one experience in a movie with Eddie Constantine, a real-life star in France. The American-born actor and singer made his fame in Europe, best known for his iconic role as secret agent/private eye Lemmy Caution in a series of French pulp pictures between 1953 and 1963. Godard later took the character, and the actor, into his evocation of film noir and dystopian sci-fi, Alphaville (1965), which co-starred Karina, thus fulfilling Nana's unrealized dream. Constantine actually had a small role in a short film by Agnes Varda inspired by silent comedies, Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) (1961), featuring Karina and Godard as young lovers whose parting on a bridge leads to tragic consequences due to his wearing of dark glasses. Godard would direct Karina in seven films between 1961 and 1966.

Vivre sa vie, like many of Godard's films, makes use of a number of cultural references. In one scene, Nana breaks down in a movie theater while watching Carl Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), specifically a scene that features influential French theorist Antonin Artaud, proponent of what he called "theater of cruelty." The cinephilia that characterized so many of the young critics and filmmakers of the French New Wave is also evident in a number of movie posters seen in the background, including those for the films Spartacus (1960), The Hustler (1961), and Jules and Jim (1962), by Godard's New Wave compatriot Francois Truffaut. In a scene near the end of the picture, Nana's new lover reads Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Oval Portrait" about a painting, stunning in its extremely life-like realism, created by an artist so obsessed with capturing the spirit of his young wife on canvas that he fails to notice until its completion that she has died while posing for him.

In one scene (or tableau, as Godard calls the twelve episodes into which Nana's story is divided), she discusses the nature of thought and the function of language with real-life scholar-essayist Brice Parain, author of A Metaphysics of Language and other noted writings.

One of Godard's signatures is a Brechtian device that distances the audience from the story and its characters, seeking to provoke active intellectual thought over passive emotional connection. One important way Godard achieves this is to frequently call attention to his films in a self-conscious way that is not reflective of real life. The device is particularly effective here in his integration of Michel Legrand's musical score into the picture. The composer's chamber passages, in and of themselves potentially reflective of the characters' emotional states, come in and out of the story at unexpected moments, sometimes mismatched to what is on screen, stopping and starting mid-phrase with apparent arbitrariness, rather than following the conventions of movie scores as seamless punctuation to the narrative. As Sterritt notes, "the psychological effect is deliberately thrown off kilter" by familiar elements of film used unconventionally rather than following the usual role of "soothing, distracting, and entertaining the audience." The effect is all the more striking when one considers Legrand's status as one of the leading composers in cinema over the last 50 years, winning Academy Awards for such "conventional" work as his music for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Summer of '42 (1971), and Yentl (1983).

Viewers today may well be put off by Godard's style and fail to see what all the fuss has been about, not only in his day but in the influence and acclaim attributed to him over the decades since Vivre sa vie's release. Perhaps it is as Roger Ebert wrote in his 2001 look back at the film in the Chicago Sun-Times: "Self-conscious films are out. Films that test the edges of cinema are out. Now it is all about the mass audience: It must be congratulated for its narrow tastes and catered to." But Ebert holds out the hope that Godard may be "resurrected from the ashes of more radical decades" and that there are still those who can appreciate what Sontag called "one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of."

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Pierre Braunberger
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, additional narrative by Marcel Sacotte
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editing: Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Guillemot
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Cast: Anna Karina (Nana), Sady Rebbot (Raoul), Andre S. Labarthe (Paul), G. Schlumberger (Yvette), Peter Kassovitz (Le jeune homme).

by Rob Nixon