One of Jean-Luc Godard’s most visually arresting New Wave films, ‘Vivre sa vie’ stars the luminous Anna Karina as Nana, a Parisian shop girl who has left her husband and child to pursue a career in the movies. Unable to pay her rent she is kicked out of her apartment, and finds herself at the mercy of men who promise her things, such as promoting her acting career if she lets them take photos of her.
Once financial hardship takes hold, and she is questioned by the police for trying to steal 1000 francs, Nana drifts into a life of prostitution. A pimp named Raoul (Sady Rebbot) takes her under his wing and educates her in the grim fundamentals of her new reality.
‘Vivre sa vie’ is told in a series of twelve constructed vignettes, with intertitles spelling out what we will see in each section, like in the chapters of a Victorian novel. The effect of which brings an overall level of theatricality to a film that is already wrestling with opposing styles. On the one hand the film is a gritty, vérité social study about prostitution. On the other, a sumptuously composed melodrama.
The contradiction continues in that it feels almost experimental in the way it is structured, and the Brechtian way Godard frames, lights, and edits much of the film, to feel as alienating as possible. Yet at the same time, I would consider ‘Vivre sa vie’ to be one of the most accessible of his French New Wave films, and I think this comes down to Anna Karina’s extraordinary performance.
Her short bobbed hair, styled like Louise Brooks (who famously became an escort when her film career ended) gives her the appearance of a silent film icon, perpetually shrouded in a glamorous wisp of chic cigarette smoke. Nearly every image of her feels iconic. Whether it be the pool hall dance, or the exquisite close up on her face as she watches Renée Falconetti in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’
It’s impossible not to be drawn into her tragic downfall, even when it seems she is so accepting of her fate. Nana/Anna understands that she exists in a world controlled by men. Whether or not she makes it in the movies, or ends up walking the streets, Godard’s (Karina’s real-life husband) bleak assessment seems to be that it will be a life of humiliation and exploitation.
As you would expect, this new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection comes with a number of special features, including an audio commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin recorded in 2001. There is also an in-depth interview with French film scholar Jean Narboni from 2004, and a rare television interview with Anna Karina from 1962.
The disc also comes with excerpts from an episode of French TV show ‘Faire Face’, which produced an exposé on prostitution, which partly inspired Godard’s approach to ‘Vivre as vie’. Another inspiration are the photos from Marcel Sacotte’s 1959 study ‘Où en est: La prostitution’, which are presented alongside an essay by James Williams.
The disc is rounded off with a stills gallery and Godard’s original trailer for the film. The booklet included with the film features an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, interviews with Godard, a reprint by critic Jean Collet on the film’s soundtrack, and Godard’s original scenario.
Cast: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, André Labarthe Director: Jean-Luc Godard Writer: Jean-Luc Godard Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 83 mins Release Date: 13th February 2023