Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sometimes all the fuss about Jean-Luc Godard seems justified, and sometimes it doesn't. The most
eccentric of the New Wave film directors, he's also the hardest to imitate, so you don't really see
parodies of his work. What's to parody? Even if it's not to one's taste, a Godard film is
'what it is', neither derivative of anyone else nor begging to be accepted. Also, forty years later,
ordinary films have become so fragmented and sketch-like, that Godard's style should no longer
seem so radical.
My Life to Live has a serious subject, handled rather directly. Godard's directorial choices
again lay the craft of filmmaking bare, self-consciously refusing to let the viewer
forget for a minute that what's being presented is not reality. But basic movie pleasures remain
the same - observing people and their behaviors, and My Life to Live has a fascinating
heroine to follow.
Nana (Anna Karina) leaves her boyfriend because she's unfulfilled, although she can't
verbalize the exact nature of her discontent. She eventually becomes a prostitute, seemingly
attracted by the independence of the work. The day-to-day routine and the rules of sex for sale
on the streets of Paris are explained in voiceover. Following the lead of her friend Yvette
Nana takes a pimp, Raoul (Sady Rebot). Things amble along until Raoul decides to 'sell her contract'
to another hood.
My Life to Live is one of the best Godard films and a rather serious one. It's neither
jokey nor frivolous like
Band of Outsiders, or obsessed with
Hollywood (A Woman is a Woman), art filmmaking
(Contempt) or pulp culture
(Alphaville). In Godard's fragmented,
lucid style, it tries to examine the unknowable workings of a lovely young woman who purposely
opts for a life of prostitution.
The strong subject matter doesn't alter Godard's style. He again
refuses to settle on conventional framing and composition, letting his camera linger on the backs
of people talking in a cafe as if we were eavesdropping on their conversation. Another twoshot
adopts an unflattering angle on the less-important character, keeping Nana's half of the conversation
off-screen. And there's nothing to restrain the camera, at any time, from panning away from its subject,
to finish a scene on 'irrelevant' surroundings: a view through an arcade window, or perhaps
traffic on the street.
Strangely, Godard's mannered camera achieves a naturalistic effect - context is always as important
as the actors. When the camera does zero in on star Anna Karina, it will more likely than not frame
her in tight closeup, observing her demeanor for twenty or thirty seconds at a time. As the
always-mysterious Karina is fascinating to watch, even when essentially doing 'nothing', the
barrier between actress and character melts.
A quote early on talks about dissecting a living being to find its insides, and then dissecting its
insides to find its soul. My Life to Live is about observing Nana and her environment, also in
hopes of finding her essence.
The film is divided into 12 chapters, each preceded by a simple card proclaiming the upcoming subject
matter. This patterning breaks the normal movie-watching experience, as if what we see of Nana are
observed moments in a social experiment. The little scenes are like little snippets of observed
reality, captured without much preparation. This is an illusion: Raoul Coutard's camerawork
is, in its own way, as careful as that for any other film.
Godard's typical 'anti-continuity' tricks peek through only intermittently, as when three takes of
Karina attempting to enter a door are quickly intercut, or the location sound is allowed to drop to
silence for a few seconds.
A Hollywood movie like Butterfield-8 glamorizes prostitution
to the point that it has little relation to reality. Godard stays basic and plain,
concentrating on Nana's attitudes and actions. As she herself probably couldn't articulate her
reasons, Godard doesn't bother to draw Nana into self-explanatory situations. All we see and hear
is that Nana seeks escape from her dreary normal relationships, perhaps to achieve an illusion of
independence. Most of this we get nonverbally, through her body language, behavior, and
facial expressions. As there's no alcohol or drugs in the mix, Nana's predicament remains a
simple one. The dry explanation of a prostitute's routine is depressing enough, but
the most telling moment is when Nana's friend Yvette explains that abandonment by her husband
and the need to care for her child are what necessitated her becoming a streetwalker.
This is Anna Karina's film, of course, and it presents yet another side of Godard's all-purpose
Here she adds a mysterious assertive edge to her essential mystery, while sticking with a totally
naturalistic approach. There's no sense of parody here. It's certainly not a 'cute'
performance, and it might be her deepest.
The sudden ending (one of Godard's most-discussed moments) proves that Nana's so-called independence
is an illusion, that the idea that her pimp can be a trusted business partner is just a lie. Nana
rebelled at the idea of being a man's toy, even for someone as well-intentioned as the boyfriend she
ditches at the beginning. But the alternative is far worse, for instead of being liberated, Nana's
been turned into a consumer product, unable to choose who buys her, and ultimately just a
disposable item with a short shelf life. Godard spent entire films semding semaphore-like messages
about the corruption of Western consumer society, but My Life to Live communicates more, and
without a single quote from Chairman Mao.
Fox Lorber's DVD of My Life to Live looks great, with a crisp, sharp and detailed transfer of
what must be original lab elements for the film. The picture shows the brilliance of Raoul Coutard's
camera - even his intentionally dank & dark shots reveal rich details. The
soundtrack is also nigh-perfect, allowing us to appreciate Michel Legrand's little stings of music,
and the well-recorded production tracks. In this snappy version, the film looks like
quality goods. Conditions are excellent for art cinema novices to attempt to 'climb Mt. Godard'.
One of the first DVD companies out the gate in 1997-98, Fox Lorber muddied up the Foreign Film
shelves with a series of poorly framed and indifferently transferred titles, now mostly discontinued.
My Life to Live has nothing in common with those. Except for a lack of extras, it's a
terrific disc. It's also at an excellent price.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Life to Live rates:
Supplements: text filmographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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