Vivre sa vie (1961)
Dir. by Jean-luc Godard
I’ve been an occasional participant in the Arts & Faith discussion forum for nearly a decade. They recently polled members to determine a Top 100 film list, and the results are notable. In previous incarnations, we used the vague criterion, “spiritually significant,” to determine what did and did not belong on the list. This time out there were no explicit guidelines. Members nominated several hundred films, we voted, and, in my opinion, we came up with a damn fine list. We then volunteered to write blurbs for the Top 100. This is one of my contributions, which is intended for a general reader who is willing to take some risks while exploring the list.
My Life to Live (1961) opens with a series of closeups of Nana (Anna Karina)—her left profile, her face straight on, her right profile, and then, in the first dramatic scene of the film, a two-minute shot of the back of her head, as she breaks up with a boyfriend in a busy Parisian cafe. The sequence of portraits anticipates much of what will follow, both thematically and stylistically. Subtitled “A Film in Twelve Scenes,” My Life to Live presents a dozen moments in Nana’s life, with few clues as to how much time has passed between them and with little of the exposition or psychologizing one typically finds in a narrative feature film. Jean-Luc Godard, who directed and co-wrote the film, has little interest in traditional notions of storytelling. Rather, his goal is simply to observe a particular woman’s fall into prostitution, experimenting with the tools of cinema as the Naturalist writers of the late-nineteenth century had done with language. (Nana could be a character from Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris.)
My Life to Live is Godard’s third feature-length film, following Breathless (1960) and A Woman is a Woman (1961). The former is Godard’s elliptical take on the “lovers on the run” genre of American movies he often championed as a young critic at Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine around which the French New Wave was formed, and the latter is his ode to Technicolor American musicals of the Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, and Vincent Minelli variety. My Life to Live is likewise dedicated to “B Movies” and reflects Godard’s genuine admiration for the “fallen woman” stories that have always been a staple of low-budget American filmmaking. However, while most B movies sentimentalize and/or exploit the subject matter, Godard reveals little of his own attitude about Nana and, as a result, complicates our viewing experience. His camera tracks slowly from side to side, occasionally peering through windows at the world of opportunity and freedom unavailable to Nana, but he almost always remains at a critical distance. Nana is worthy of our admiration and our pity, desperate and trapped in a world outside of her own making.
Godard has had a long career—his latest feature, Film Socialisme, premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2010—and is among a small handful of the most important figures in all of film history. My Life to Live is by most accounts the masterpiece of the first phase of his filmography, roughly from Breathless to Pierrot le Fou (1965), during which he completed an astounding ten features, all of them quite good, before moving into a more politically radical mode of filmmaking. One of his later films, In Praise of Love (2001), came in at #94 on the Top 100, and it’s also worth noting that the #4 film on the Arts and Faith list, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, features prominently in My Life to Live. In the film’s most memorable scene, Nana steps into a theater to watch Dryer’s film, and Godard cuts between tear-streaked closeups of Falconetti’s Joan and Karina’s Nana. It’s a beautiful and typically sticky moment from Godard, as it simultaneously celebrates the cinema, echoes the mugshot-like portraits that opened the film, and draws revealing parallels between these two very different women.