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.
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 actress. 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: