Vivre Sa Vie (My Life To Live)

France (1962) Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

After finally popping my Godard cherry with his audacious debut Breathless, I dip my toe once again into the catalogue of this celebrated French New Wave auteur. Will this be another film that will surpass my expectations or will the old tussle between French New Wave and I resume?

Vivre Sa Vie tells the simple story of Nana (Anna Karina), a young Parisian woman who yearns to become an actress but ends up a prostitute (insert joke about both jobs being interchangeable). True to Godard’s esoteric and unconventional approach to filmmaking, the presentation is far from straightforward, the reason why the film is heavily lauded by “serious” film buffs only.

As denoted by the original French subtitle film en douze tableaux, Godard’s chose to share this story via twelve individual scenes detailing a specific stage in Nana’s gradual downfall from young wife and mother to tragic streetwalker. Preceded by intertitles explaining each scenario, the clips aren’t directly sequential, allowing for multiple time jumps to occur without damaging the flow of the narrative.

This affords the two-year saga to be explored inside 83 minutes which sounds extremely rushed but much of the developments occur off screen and in between each segment. With Breathless Godard introduced us to his quick jump cut edits, often within the same scene which created a sense of expedience and arty pretensions – this is employed again here but nowhere near as astringent as in Breathless making it less chaotic.

So, how does Nana’s life go down the pan the way it does? The film opens with Nan in a café with her estranged husband Paul (André S. Labarthe), shot entirely with both of them with their backs to the camera, only moving between them to denote who is speaking. Nana feels unfulfilled and wants to make something of her life, believing acting is her calling. She is soon to meet a man who will take her photos and send them on to film studios.

In the interim Nana gets a job in a record shop but the pay isn’t enough for her rent and she is constantly on the scrounge for loans and her landlady locks her out for being behind on her payments. She eventually meets the photographer who explains that Nana must undress for the photo shoot which she initially refuses but eventually acquiesces. In the next scene however it seems this was for nought as Nana has been arrested for trying to steal money from a woman who dropped it in the street.

Her entry into the world of prostitution was by accident, approached by a man whilst walking through a notorious pick up spot. Needing the money Nana doesn’t reveal his mistake and although her awkwardness and reluctance exposes her, she makes 5000 francs. After meeting an old friend Yvette (Guylaine Schlumberger) who also ended up on the game, Nana ends up working for a pimp named Raoul (Saddy Rebbot).

Bearing in mind when this was made, there are no acts of nookie depicted at all; Nana doesn’t even strip any further than a blouse being partially removed whilst the only nudity is a few seconds of a naked bottom belonging to another woman. Therefore we can only assume that Godard isn’t interested in the whys and wherefores of being on the game but instead looking at the actual person doing the job.

I doubt I am looking at this in the same way as many others but my interpretation is that Nana is supposed to be totemic of the many women who seek fame and fortune and in taking the wrong path end up losing their personal sense of worth. Nana still harbours ideas of acting but begins to wonder how much longer she could dream about it, illustrated in scene 11 where she talks with philosopher Brice Parain about life.

Unless one is in harmony with Godard (which I doubt I am) the above suggestion is probably flimsy and superficial, but then again this film isn’t forthcoming in providing answers anyway. Staying with the obtuseness of French New Wave, there are plenty of distractions thrown in which might or might not mean something – it is hard to tell sometimes.

One scene which works extremely well is Raoul explaining the rules and etiquette of being a prostitute to Nana. Instead of the two seated somewhere for this lesson, their voices are heard over a montage of Nana at work, occasionally her actions parallel to the details Raoul is sharing – time saving and demonstrative.

Elsewhere Nana tries to excite some men at a bistro run by a friend of Raoul’s by dancing about to a track on a jukebox. Her dancing is quirky, vivacious, cheeky without being naughty and inviting without being overtly tantalising yet they all ignore her. But it is a superbly lively performance and the scene itself can be seen in the DNA of the dancing scene in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Godard’s use of unconventional framing is another style trait which has since been the subject of homage and theft – French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan no doubt was inspired by some of the unusually framed shots he saw here. Yet, Godard himself isn’t above wearing his influences on his sleeve, with clips from Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc included to delineate Nana’s depressed feelings early on.

As Godard’s muse and one time wife, leading lady Anna Karina is a plaything who gives herself to be moulded at the director’s whim. Yet there is an essence of Nana’s desperation in Karina’s performance, as she tries to assert her own will into the characterisation. It makes for compelling viewing nonetheless and Karina is a beguiling focal point of the film.

Whilst Vivre Sa Vie is thankfully not an impenetrable or tedious chore and has plenty of artistic merits, I won’t be joining the “5 Star Masterpiece” club on this one, but I am glad I have seen this interesting cinematic experiment.