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The cult of Jean-Luc Godard has held firm over the years, although followers of his later films and video works are relatively few. His highly personal New Wave wonders remain as fresh and challenging as when they were new. Vivre sa vie is from 1962, early in Godard's career. Although it makes a direct connection with the director's famous quote, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun", the film is much more than a valentine to Godard's leading player (and spouse) Anna Karina. In one sense it's a semi-documentary about prostitution in Paris. The fragmented account of a young woman's fall from grace begins with the aptly named Nana (Karina) detaching herself from her estranged husband (André S. Labarthe). Their marriage has collapsed over money problems. Nana's child now lives with friends and is seen only in snapshots. Introduced to prostitution by another woman with an equally unhappy backstory, Nana is soon hooking men in the street under the guidance of a suave pimp, Raoul (Saddy Rebbot). She eventually grows weary of her new life and seeks escape with a lover (Peter Kassovitz). But Raoul makes arrangements to sell Nana to another pimp.
Vivre sa vie is neither abstract nor Avant-garde. Characters say lines, make entrances and smile or cry on camera. The movie is divided into twelve chapters, each marked with an inter-title that reads like a continuity road sign. A sample:
THE STREETS -- A GUY -- HAPPINESS IS NO FUN
Godard teases the grammar of film the way a poet plays with words. Instead of hiding artifice and technique, it is put up front for all to see. Actors look at the camera, begin scenes in stage waits and sometimes speak their dialogue as if they were puppets. Some dialogue scenes are played off the backs of heads, while others crop one of the characters out of the frame. By ignoring the formalities of conventional filmmaking, Godard asks us to question his images at a basic level.
Some scenes do employ continuity cuts -- i.e., conventional narrative cuts -- but more are loose montages opposing close-ups of Nana with signage on the streets and shots taken from moving cars. Voiceovers are frequent. In an elaborate central montage depicting Nana's working life, we hear Raoul's voice answering questions about the sex trade, reading speeches taken from a non-fiction book. For Nana the experience is emotionless and empty: she struggles only when avoiding being kissed on the mouth, and is more often seen staring in close-ups as if waiting for the ordeal to end. The only nudity on view is brief glimpses of supposed prostitutes at work, arranged by Godard as near-static tableaux seen through hotel doorways. Nana's situation is defined by an opening quote: "Lend yourself to others. But give yourself to yourself."
Godard clearly idolizes the intriguing Anna Karina, who serves as both his muse and a willing puppet for his cinematic games. The camera regards Karina's expressions as if seeking the truth beneath her calm beauty. Nana puts up a game front before the various men that determine her fate but goes about her work in a trance, as if it were all happening to someone else. Ironically, having sex with strangers is no less dispiriting for Nana as was selling records in a music store. While waiting for Raoul to finish a business meeting she unwinds in a pool hall, dancing to a jukebox and enjoying the clowning of another pimp. In the film's most celebrated scene, Nana becomes emotional watching the doomed heroine of the silent Dreyer classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. Actress Falconetti cries on screen, and Nana's tears flow as well. Later on Godard places Anna Karina in a silent movie of her own, dropping the dialogue track and adding subtitles for a short sequence.
The Joan of Arc sequence is a good example of Godard's search for film language that expresses intellectual ideas. The scene obviously compares the tragic Nana to Joan, and contrasts Godard's technique to that of Carl Dreyer. Watching Nana, we acknowledge the truth that movies can create a personal bond with emotions filmed generations before. Falconetti's screen image is often described as expressing spiritual transcendence, and Godard seems to be asking whether that quality can be transferred to Nana by simple cinematic association. We empathize with Nana, who empathizes with Joan, forming a chain of spectator-performer relationships. All Anna Karina need do is stare and cry.
Despite his investigation of filmic forms, Jean-Luc Godard's main preoccupation is words and language. In Vivre sa vie he hasn't quite reached the point where text slogans flash on screen and neon signs substitute for inter-titles. Yet at one point we watch patiently as Nana writes out a letter in longhand. When Nana's lover reads aloud from a book, Godard dubs in his own voice. Nana's first on-screen moment is a trick on the audience. She reads a single line of dialogue three or four times, giving it different inflections. The shot appears to be an unedited outtake until it becomes clear that Nana is repeating the words in an effort to decide what she really wants to say. Near the conclusion Nana talks with a philosopher, complaining about this inability to accurately express her thoughts.
Godard hasn't much use for imposed soundtrack music. He prunes Michel Legrand's music score into brief snippets, creating unexpected gaps of silence. The message seems to be that audiences need to "unlearn" old film conventions. Scenes begin and end in irregular patterns, keeping the viewer off balance. No other film director of the French New Wave embraced such a radical approach. And no two Godard films are alike -- his style evolved to accommodate social comment and political advocacy.
Vivre sa vie's uncomplicated agenda allows us to remain interested in Nana's problems even when the director subordinates them to his authorly style. Deciding that the audience is owed some kind of conventional climax, Godard stages a confrontation involving gangsters, cars and guns. It's a street-crime version of the dilemma faced by another silent heroine, Lulu of Pabst's Pandora's Box. Nana only wants to survive but has become a piece of property exploited by aggressive males. Refusing to indulge in conventional action montage, Godard covers the violence in a non-committal single take, reducing Nana's fate to a cruel throwaway.
Criterion presents its Blu-ray of Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie in a splendid HD transfer derived from the original camera negative. Much of the picture looks like fine B&W still photography in motion, thanks to Raoul Coutard's artful camera work. An earlier Region 1 DVD displayed poor contrast that rendered many backlit shots of star Karina as featureless silhouettes.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy assembles a fine assortment of critical discussion and prime-source interviews. Scholar Adrian Martin contributes an academic commentary, and Jean Narboni and Noél Simsolo speak in a new interview. Anna Karina is interviewed for a 1962 French television show, and other TV excerpts are taken from a vintage TV exposé on prostitution. An illustrated essay looks at the contents of the non-fiction book used as a resource for the film. In addition to a stills gallery and an original trailer, a thick insert booklet contains the film's original scenario, interviews with Jean-Luc Godard, an essay by Michael Atkinson and an article by Jean Collet on the film's directly recorded soundtrack.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vivre sa vie Blu-ray rates:
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