Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I'll Do What I Want

Film: Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (My Life to Live)
Format: Streaming video from HuluPlus on rockin’ flatscreen.

My wife Sue got a chunk o’ cash for her birthday recently and she bought herself a Roku box. It’s pretty sweet. It does the same NetFlix thing that the Wii does, and also allows us to watch HuluPlus and a few other free television and movie channels on the flatscreen just like normal people. So today I tested it out, and I have to say that HuluPlus on television trumps HuluPlus on the laptop.

Anyway, Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (My Life to Live) reacquaints me with Jean-Luc Godard. I think it’s safe to say that two years ago, I had never watched a Godard film, and now I have more than a half-dozen under my belt. The more I watch Godard’s films, the more I appreciate what he was trying to do with film in general. This film is another experiment of his, and it’s an experiment that, in the main, works. It is just as the French title suggests, a compilation of twelve short films about the same characters that show snapshots of a woman’s life. In those snapshots, we get her whole story.

Nana (Anna Karina) is unhappily married and decides to leave her husband and small child so that she can pursue an acting career. However, money isn’t easy to come by and her job at a music store doesn’t pay very much. So she makes a career move into prostitution and deals with her various clients and her pimp, Raoul (Sady Rebbot). Throughout, Nana attempts to determine if she is actually happy and actually living rather than simply continuing to exist. That’s really all there is to it.

Godard is a smart filmmaker, and was smart when he made this film. Vivre sa Vie is early in his career (only his third full-length feature), but it shows the deft hand of someone much more seasoned behind the camera. In one sequence, for instance, we hear Nana asking Raoul about what it really means to be a prostitute—how much can she make, how often will she be working, does she get days off, can she refuse clients—while we see her with a series of men. It’s a montage that really works; we get the sense of her being with a huge number of men, but we see none of the sex. Instead, we see dressing and undressing, sheets being folded down, money exchanging hands. It becomes a sort of rhythm.

Karina is the heart and soul of the film, and it is she who must carry it. She is on screen for virtually the entirety of the film, and while we never get her thoughts or ideas unless she speaks them, we are the closest to her throughout the story. She has the perfect look for the film to inspire the sort of sympathy that Godard wants. She is unquestionably beautiful, possessed of a near-perfect head of bobbed hair and deep, soulful eyes. More importantly, she is able to project a sort of constant innocence despite her career change. In one scene, a client asks for a second girl and then rejects Nana, and her reaction to this spurning is one of real emotion.

The film is not perfect, though. One particular fault is essentially built into the narrative. Since we see only bits and pieces of her life over the course of 80 or so minutes, changes occur that we do not witness. Her life and attitudes change and we are forced to pick these up on the fly as the scene changes from one moment to the next. A young man playing pool in one scene, for instance, has suddenly become a love interest for Nana later. For us, the time between these events is measured in minutes. For them, it could well be weeks or months, and we’re given no clues to determine the actual truth.

Second, the ending is abrupt and surprising, and not specifically in a good way. The ending isn’t inappropriate in any way, but it comes completely out of nowhere and gives us as the audience almost no time to react to it before the screen turns black. Again, I’m certain this was intentional on the part of Godard, but it does make the viewing experience unsatisfying at the end, at least for me.

The title is worth some exploration as well. On the surface, it would appear that Godard is allowing Nana the ability to chose the life she wants, and if that happens to be prostitution because the money is better, so be it. However, throughout the film, Nana’s choices seem almost predetermined. As soon as she sets off on her own path, her life is decided, and her life to live is lived at the behest of others and from choices beyond her control.

Vivre sa Vie is worth watching, though, because like many of Godard’s early films, it expanded the world of cinematic language. His experiments, while not always 100% successful, worked often enough to make anything he touched at least worthy of consideration. That’s true of this film, too.

Why to watch Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux: It’s supremely fascinating.
Why not to watch: The end.


  1. "Second, the ending is abrupt and surprising, and not specifically in a good way.... it does make the viewing experience unsatisfying at the end, at least for me."

    I haven't seen the movie, but if Nana suddenly dies or gets killed at the end, then it's a good bet we're looking at the influence of existentialism: we live in an absurd, pointless universe, etc. In fact, since "Vivre sa vie" literally translates as "Living one's [own] life," I'd venture that existentialism suffuses the whole film: existentialism is, after all, all about making one's own brave, authentic choices in the face of an absurd, uncaring reality. And if Nana is wondering whether she's really living or merely existing, this calls to mind Meursault's haranguing of the priest in Camus's L'Etranger-- the moment when Meursault shouts that the priest is living like one of the dead.

    I wonder why Godard chose twelve tableaux, though. Un petit soupçon of a Judeo-Christian trope, perhaps?

    Knowing nothing of Godard and nothing of this film, I'm only guessing about all of this, of course.

    (By the way: "nana" is French slang for "chick.")

  2. This was the first Godard film I saw (and I've only seen a couple), and thankfully I really enjoyed it! The ending definitely was abrupt though - I remember the whole cinema class (it was the first time we'd all seen it) was in disbelief! Karina is so beautiful as well.

  3. @Kevin--Yeah, it's quite definitely about existentialism. My take on it, though, is not so much about making a brave choice in the face of absurd reality, but of lacking choice in absurd reality. Nana really chooses nothing in the film despite her believing she does. Make of that what you will.

    @Ruth--I think what bothers me about the end isn't what happens but the complete lack of denouement. It just ends.

  4. The abruptness of the ending worked for me.

  5. Technically, it's Godard's fourth film (Le Petit Soldat was made in 1960, but held up for release until 1963), but yeah, your point still stands. The first time I watched this, I was thrown by the ending, too, and I was actually depressed by the film enough to think I didn't care for it very much. But I couldn't get it out of my head, and now it's one of my favorite Godard films. Albeit partially because I'm a big fan of his experimentation, and that's on display here in full force.

    David Bordwell has suggested that on a formal level, this film is a study in how to film conversations - the whole film is made up of conversations, and they're all shot differently - sometimes in two-shot, sometimes with one person showing in a mirror, sometimes with one person obscuring the other, sometimes as a silent film, sometimes as a wordless transaction between screen and audience. Of course, that doesn't begin to capture the emotional resonance the film has, especially on multiple viewings.

  6. It's been a couple of days now since I've seen this, and there are parts of it that stay with me. Bordwell might be onto something here. I didn't consider that when watching, but it makes a certain amount of sense to me.

    Like most of the Godard I've seen in the last two years, I want to go back and watch them again. I think when I'm done with all of this, I might go on a month-long Godard kick.

  7. This was one of my favourites from my Godard-a-thon last year. I love the way that Godard experiments throughout the film. Almost every one of the vignettes is shot in a different way - and Anna Karina gives probably the best performance I have seen her give. I didn't mind the ending, though it made me very sad.

    Recently, my blog has experienced some issues when I changed my url. Could you update your link in my Blogroll (to, and if you follow me in a Reader, re-follow with the new Feed. Cheers.

  8. The more Godard I see, the more I like him. And I agree that it is a great performance from Karina.

  9. I'm liking Godard the more I see him as well. I love Weekend (which I saw last year) and after a rocky start, I thought Masculine-Feminine was brilliant by the time I was done. And the trend continues with Vivre sa vie, which was on TCM Imports the other night.

    I mean, it's no Weekend … but what is?

    And Anna Karina is pretty awesome.

    1. I find Godard very hit-or-miss. When he misses, he misses big in my opinion, and there are enough of those that I'm never going to be a fanboy of his.