Faced with a failed relationship, a dead-end job, and potential homelessness, young Parisienne Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Anna Karina) turns to “the life” – that is, prostitution. A simple tale told in twelve Brechtian tableaux, Vivre sa vie is one of Godard’s most deeply felt films, anchored by Karina’s astonishing lead performance and Nouvelle Vague favorite Raoul Coutard’s breathtaking cinematography of street-level Paris.
Roger Ebert Review :
Godard. We all went to Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s. We stood in the rain outside the Three Penny Cinema, waiting for the next showing of “Weekend.” One year the New York Film Festival showed two of his movies, or was it three? One year at the Toronto festival Godard said, “The cinema is not the station. The cinema is the train.” Or perhaps it was the other way around. We nodded. We loved his films. As much as we talked about Tarantino after “Pulp Fiction,” we talked about Godard in those days. I remember a sentence that became part of my repertory: “His camera rotates 360 degrees, twice, and then stops and moves back in the other direction just a little_to show that it knows what it’s doing!”
And now the name Godard inspires a blank face from most filmgoers. Subtitled films are out. Art films are out. Self-conscious films are out. Films that test the edges of the cinema are out. Now it is all about the mass audience: It must be congratulated for its narrow tastes, and catered to. And yet, idly watching television as Aerosmith is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I reflect that if they can be resurrected from the ashes of more radical decades, then why not Godard?
I originally think to choose “Breathless” (1959), which fired an opening salvo of the French New Wave, had us all talking about “jump cuts,” and made Jean-Paul Belmondo a star. But there is a new DVD of “My Life to Live” (“Vivre Sa Vie”), from 1963. I slip it into the machine, and within five minutes I am so fascinated that I do not move, I do not stir, until it is over. This is a great movie, and I am not surprised to find Susan Sontag describing it as “one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of.”
Famous shots. She smokes while a client embraces her, looking over his shoulder, eyes empty. Later Raoul inhales and kisses her, and she blows out his smoke. What is there to do in this Paris but hang out in bars, smoke, wish you had more money? Prostitution for her isn’t much more interesting than pinball. In France, prostitution is called “the life,” which gives another meaning to the title. There is a monotone Q&A conversation in which Raoul explains the rules of her new trade. Then the movie devolves into a crime story, and we are reminded that “Breathless” also ended in a violent shooting in the street, although in “My Life to Live,” the camera sees the violent moment and then_looks down! Down at the street, or at its feet. The film looks away from its own ending.
There is a scene in a cafe a little earlier, with Nana in conversation with the man at the next table, a philosopher (Brice Parain, apparently playing himself). He tells her the story of a man who runs away from danger, and then stops, paralyzed by the thought of how to put one foot in front of another. “The first time he thought,” observes the philosopher, “it killed him.”
If she thinks, will it kill her? We notice her openness, her curiosity, in talking to the old man. This from a woman who has been reluctant to reveal any thoughts or feelings, who has been all surface. We are reminded of a story Paul told earlier in the film, about a child who explained that if you take away the outside of a chicken, you have the inside, and if you take away the inside, you have the soul. Nana is all outside.