There’s probably precious little I can add to scholarship on Godard’s 1962 Vivre Sa Vie, so I won’t take long with it, but I’d like to record my impressions, anyway, because I feel fortunate to have caught this at the Seattle International Film Festival. From Godard’s early period, this has less of the jittery, revolutionary energy of Breathless and more of the formal discipline and controlled storytelling of 1960’s Le Petit Soldat. Indeed, apart from Breathless, I came to Godard’s early work pretty late — I only caught up with Le Petit Soldat in 2006, and this film only last week. As an art student actively seeked out the avant-garde, I fell in love with Godard on the basis of his later, more aggressively challenging work — Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, Weekend, Tout Va Bien, Ici Et Ailleurs, Passion, Prenom Carmen, King Lear, and Helas Pour Moi all crossed my path before I had a chance to get to know Godard as a straightforward dramatic storyteller. Even Alphaville and Contempt, probably the most conventional narratives of Godard’s I had seen prior to Le Petit Soldat, were puzzling and frustrating as often as they were pleasurable.
Vivre Sa Vie is structured, as the subtitle helpfully tells us, “In Twelve Tableaux,” and each of these tableaux advances the story of Nana (Anna Karina), a young woman struggling to make ends meet in Paris who eventually turns to prostitution. Godard takes us through a few scenes of Nana’s daily life, her work at a record shop, her flirtations and dates with young men, her arrest by the police for theft after she’s locked out of her apartment by an unsympathetic landlady. The scenes in which she finds her first john and then is recruited by a pimp are handled unsentimentally, but always sympathetically. Most peculiarly for a Godard film, they’re also dramatically straightforward and comprehensible — not to mention thoroughly contemporary. There’s even a bit of dialogue that could be straight out of Pimps Up, Ho’s Down — Raoul the pimp, who’s tipped to Nana’s availability by another whore, asks, “Is she a lady or a tramp?” Another man, offscreen, advises, “Insult her. If she’s a tramp, she’ll get angry. If a lady, she’ll smile.” Raoul applies this test, and Karina’s take on Nana’s response is a minor masterpiece.
Godard leans heavily on Karina throughout the film, dazzling us with her beauty and vivacity, using her as a kind of spectacle-of-person, in the same way that James Cameron used Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movies. Schwarzenegger’s a fairly limited actor, while Karina is quite subtle and moving, but in both cases sheer physical presence can sometimes be enough to carry a scene. The central scene of this kind in Vivre Sa Vie is one in which Nana, waiting while Raoul conducts business in a pool hall, puts a loud, jazzy number on the jukebox and twirls and twists around the room, dancing to relieve her boredom and to distract the men. Godard, one step ahead of us, plays with our fascination with Karina as a physical presence by suddenly cutting to Nana’s POV — we still hear the music, we’re still moving in the same slow circle around the pool tables, but there’s a definitive absence, a vacuum where Karina out to be. Raoul and his partner look up, eyeing “Nana” (i.e., the camera) as she approaches. And then Godard cuts again, and Karina is there, filling up the screen with life and energy, swaying loosely under her ruffled shirt, smiling like the devil on holiday.
This is a brisk, lively film, easily the most accessible Godard I’ve seen, with a light touch but enough sense of doom and tragedy to leaven the proceeding and avoid any Pretty Woman-type frothy nonsense about prostitution. And if you haven’t got NetFlix, you can watch it (probably illegally) here.