Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is one of the few that I’ve seen before but broke out again to rewatch and talk about mostly because of just how good I think it is. I don’t actually do a whole lot of rewatching of movies (simply too much to see) but sometimes it’s worth bothering to do. So let’s get right into it with this week’s movie.
Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
The translated title of this movie is My Life to Live, which might as well be the most condensed version of everything I’m about to talk about today. Jean-Luc Godard’s 4th feature film is a movie that is defined by the will and personality of its main character Nana, a young woman played to perfection by Anna Karina in what I’d call out as her best role. It is at its heart a picture of humanity, beguilingly simple, a life played out under a watchful camera.
The story, such as it is, is set up as a series of 12 tableaux, all labelled appropriately about what they contain with helpful title cards before the scenes play out. If that seems distancing, it’s no more so than the rest of the movie which goes out of its way to adopt a style just this side of documentarian. It is cinema verite at it’s most accessible and pop-inspired, wrapped in a slick shell. So what story does all the hullaballoo revolve around?
The film opens on Nana and an unidentified man having a conversation with their backs to the audience. They talk about trivialities as Nana dominates and controls the conversation, the man obviously upset by something we aren’t privy to and digging deeper. Nana is an aspiring actress apparently and as the conversation carries on–with glances of our lead reflected in the mirrored surfaces in front of her–we discover that Nana left this man, her husband, and a young child in order to pursue her dream of being an actress. She seems only idly concerned for their well being, the way one would for absent friends, but she seems mostly interested in talking about anything but what she’s done and how it’s affected them.
Then she excuses herself and goes to play the pinball machine, her estranged husband helpfully plugging the machine with money for her.
I highlight this scene, this first moment of the movie, because it is perhaps the most perfect opening to a movie I’ve ever seen. It bristles with an energy that hides behind every careful gesture and every shot that doesn’t look at the thing we most want to see. It perfectly sets up this character we’re going to follow, making us at turns be charmed by her and annoyed by her and saddened by her without ever making it seem like she isn’t aware of or okay with any of those responses. It establishes boundaries, births questions, and sets the tone of the movie with a grace that almost seems playful.
The movie unfolds as we watch Nana try to make it as an actress and invariably fail. We never see her audition or even try to get a job, instead talking about the allure of being an actress and posing for head shots. She runs headlong into this dream like she runs headlong into anything else, all elegance on the outside but somehow lacking something vital inside to make it work. Before long she’s bumming money from coworkers, then picking up dropped money on the street, then kicked out of her apartment and put out onto the street.
What follows is the part that is maybe the diciest bit of the movie. Nana decides, rather naturally, to take up prostitution as a career choice. It’s something that today feels a little extreme given how our culture views these things, but helpfully during her early stages getting used to her new career we find out that the France of the early 60s had legalized prostitution and her crash course (set to an amazing montage of her casually courting and bedding various men with all the thoughtless grace she’d use fixing her hair or smoking a cigarette) makes it genuinely sound like a fairly reasonable choice for her.
I say that mostly because what happens in this movie is as far away from an ‘issue’ film as you can get, and I’m afraid a summary like that could make it into one. Vivre Sa Vie is many things, but a soapbox or informative piece isn’t on its agenda at all. In fact, as a movie it seems very careful to stay as far away from subjective statements one way or another in every possible avenue. In some ways I suppose that makes it not much different than last week’s film The Match Factory Girl, but while that movie seemed remote to the point of complete alienation, Vivre Sa Vie is simply aloof. It’s a cool, devil-may-care attitude that mirrors many of the attitudes that fill the screen in the films of the French New Wave.
It’s an amazing thing to watch, a director and cameraman that are so free to experiment and play. The camera in Vivre Sa Vie is a character unto itself, always ducking throughout the scene as though it’s trying to catch the most interesting thing at any given moment. Sometimes it misses them. Sometimes it seems to deliberately look away, as if a moment could be too personal or as if it sees something just out of frame that it would rather go look at for a second.
It would be maddening in someone else’s hands, but here it seems to only underline the focus of the movie. We follow a flighty character as she flits through her life, confident to the point of foolishness, covering it all up with no small amount of charm. The camera similarly whisks us away if only we’ll let it, only missing things when they’re meant to be missed, giving us all we need to see and not a second more.
And always it returns to Nana. Godard was married to Anna Karina when this movie was made, and its that unwavering eye for her intimidating, beguiling beauty that lights up the screen. There is so much feeling in the hows and whys of every shot that it becomes as much a story about the camera and the audience falling for this woman as it is her trials through the course of the plot.
And it’s that human center that really makes me love Vivre Sa Vie as much as I do. I would count it among my favorite films of all time, even as I struggle to explain why. It’s so gentle with ideas and content that could be treated so roughly in other people’s hands. It’s funny without jokes, and heartbreaking with almost no appeals to our sense of tragedy. It’s rare to find movies that are so much about the presence of another person, to where you feel you know them without them telling you anything at all, where fictional characters are brought to such vivid life. If art is supposed to imitate life, then Vivre Sa Vie is the pinnacle of that ideal, as real as you or me, captured forever in stolen glances and coy smiles.