Note: I wrote this brief description of Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie for the Cinefamily repertory theater, who are screening the film alongside Godard's latest work, Film Socialisme, on Monday January 23, 2012. Below is the unedited copy.
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 masterpiece Vivre sa vie (aka My Life to Live) was the fourth film the French New Wave icon shot in only two years. In the wake of the breakout financial and critical success of Breathless, Godard would initially turn inward with a strident work of cinematic political activism (La Petit soldat) before flowering flamboyantly with a day-glo tribute to the American musical-comedy (A Woman is a Woman). The stylistic extremity of these films would eventually streamline as Godard’s relationship with his new star of choice, Anna Karina, began to blossom in the early ‘60s, so much so that by the time of Vivre sa vie, Godard’s defiant aesthetic could be utilized as a microscope under which his emotions and skepticism toward Karina could be examined via his own formal constructions (note the use of the twelve descriptive tableaux as well as Godard’s preoccupation with framing Karina in close-up, but from behind her head).
One of Godard’s saddest, most influential works, Vivre sa vie eaves-drops the viewer into the vicinity of Karina’s bob-coifed Nana, a young, beautiful Parisian who dreams of becoming an actress only to fall into casual prostitution to makes ends meet. Though this was Godard’s first examination of prostitution and the sexual alienation of women—one of his longest-running thematic concerns and one that would reach its initial apex with 1967s Two or Three Things I Know About Her—many of Vivre sa vie's most memorable moments occur in brief narrative asides: Nana’s late night, tear-stained spiritual with Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (the film’s most devastating, iconic sequence), her existential café debate with philosopher Brice Parain, her seductive jukebox-accompanied stride around a smoky pool-hall, or even the unexpectedly tragic finale, which even Raoul Coutard’s camera diverts from, crystallizing Nana as both pariah and object of unattainable desire. [Cinefamily]