Without people like Jean-Luc Godard breaking cinema rules and regulations, many of us would never have realized those conventions even exist. Vivre Sa Vie is no exception to a body of work that pushed the limits of cinema, giving us an unsentimental look at a life headed in a tragic direction. But despite what might seem like a sad story, Godard achieves unexpected moments of pure simplicity along the way.
- Director: Jean-Luc Godard
- Writer: Jean-Luc Godard, Marcel Sacotte
- Cast: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, Andre S. Labarthe, Guylaine Schlumberger, Gerard Hoffman
Vivre Sa Vie centers around Nana (Karina), a young French woman determined to become an actress and willing to walk out on her husband and son. Finding it hard to land work, she becomes a prostitute. Her lifestyle choice is documented over a series of 12 short installments, each focusing on a specific part of her journey.
The opening scene is engaging in the way it executes a conversation at a restaurant counter, showing only the character’s backsides, and proving yet again how the French New Wave was intent on doing things differently. Of all the French New Wave directors, Jean-Luc Godard is the most prolific and perhaps also the most radical in his approach. Well into his later years, Godard’s work continued to defy conventions, seeking out sociological or political issues in his films. In Vivre Sa Vie, he takes a close look at the life of a woman who finds herself becoming a prostitute. By focusing on one character, the story functions as a frame through which a world of prostitution and its rules becomes clear. One of the most compelling installments in the story provides an extensive series of questions that a newcomer would ask. Through the use of voice-over and stylistic posing, Godard provides very detailed explanations from her pimp that answer her questions. This single installment serves as a perfect example of how Godard often took social problems and used cinema to provide critical insight into such issues.
Anna Karina was married to Godard at the time that Vivre Sa Vie was made. Though it may seem odd that a director would place his wife in the role of a prostitute, it seems to have also resulted in achieving a tone that feels intimate and real. Further adding a sense of realism to the film is the use of a style resembling the work of documentaries, often doing nothing more than showing Nana in her environment and sometimes using footage of the city to provide a societal context to her story. Appropriately, there’s a scene where Nana finds herself in a movie theater watching the great French silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film that was also shot in a straightforward style and also focused on a female character being judged. Nana’s conversation towards the end of the film with a philosopher is another intriguing scene within the film, filled with dialogue that is insightful and self conscious about life. But while Vivre Sa Vie offers a view of the world in the form of a cinematic essay, it is probably not the most accessible film for audience members seeking a more conventional story arc.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert begins his review by placing Godard within a context that seeks to honor him. To provide modern audiences with reasons to acknowledge the impact of Godard, he briefly states, “As much as we talked about Tarantino after “Pulp Fiction”, we talked about Godard in those days.” There is a nostalgia to Ebert’s experience with Godard, sharing with us a fascination towards daring films, a view that seems to have been lost. When explaining the rare treatment of his subject matter, Ebert’s specifically mentions certain elements. The music, for instance, “often stops abruptly, to begin again with the next shot — as if to say, the music will try to explain, but fail.” Then there’s the camera itself, which in many ways implicates us, “we are the camera, watching, wondering. The camera is not expressing a “style” but the way people look at other people.” And finally, reading the last paragraph of his review, we are reminded that Godard’s approach to filmmaking in this particular film is both fresh and astonishing in its near ability to see things as they happen.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Vivre Sa Vie? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: My Man Godfrey
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie this week, he now has 334 under his belt and less than 50 films left to go