Criterion // 1962 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // April 20th, 2010
"After all, things are just what they are. A face is a face. A plate is
a plate. Men are men. And life...is life."
The trick to watching any film by legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is to steel yourself for the reality that one viewing isn't going to be enough. Though his films would grow increasingly political and ambitiously challenging as his career progressed and his filmography grew, Vivre sa vie is only Godard's fourth film and, as such, remains one of his most accessible. Its story is more linear and traditional than later efforts like Weekend. Still, seeing it once isn't enough. As soon as it ended, I knew I had to watch it again. I mean that as a compliment.
Vivre sa vie is told in eleven "tableaus," which are basically chapters covering an undisclosed amount of time (there's no indication if the story takes place over the course of weeks, months or years). Godard's wife/muse Anna Karina (Made in U.S.A.) stars as Nana, a would-be actress struggling to make her dreams come true while still managing to make ends meet. Into her life comes Raoul (Saddy Rebott, Last Leap), a pimp who talks her into a life of prostitution. Nana sees it as her ticket out, but the life continues to erode away her soul until there may be no turning back.
Like most other Godard films, Vivre sa vie is as much about being a movie as it is about its story, and as viewers we're constantly aware of the director's hand controlling the proceedings. Actors give multiple takes of line readings. Shots seem to begin before action is called. The camera moves in jarring ways, never showing us anything but what Godard wants us to see (often to our frustration). As Nana slides deeper into a life of prostitution, we feel her acting; it's key that we know she wishes to be in the movies, because it becomes apparent that she begins to view "prostitute" as a kind of role she's playing. But just as we know we're watching Nana play a part, we never lose sight of the fact that we're watching Karina play a part as well. Watch the extreme close-up of her face (seriously, has a more beautiful face ever been captured on film?) as Nana is brought to tears while watching The Passion of Joan of Arc: on one level, it's a scene about Nana being moved by Joan's sacrifice (at the hands of men, a theme that is reflected in her own fate) and the performance of actress Maria Falconetti. On another level, it's about Karina making herself cry for the camera -- it is acting that comments on other acting. Vivre sa vie is filled with self-reflexive moments like this; it's not a film that deconstructs cinema, but can still be viewed as a film about the construction of film just as much as a film about the sad, lonely descent of a young girl into a life that destroys her. If Nana is to be seen as a martyr, it's as a martyr for Godard's camera.
It should come as no surprise that Criterion has done another incredible job with their DVD release of Vivre sa vie. The full frame transfer is practically flawless, free of any dirt or print damage and looks darn near new. The black and white image has been brightened up a little to provide extra detail, but the photography never loses the richness or depth of its shadowy blacks. It's just a beautiful transfer. The mono audio track is faithful to its source and totally serviceable, and the film comes with easy-to-read (but removable, in case you're fluent) English subtitles.
There's a strong collection of extra features on the disc, too. My favorite is a feature commentary track by film scholar Adrian Martin (recorded in 2001), which is engaging and incredibly informative without becoming dry or leaving dead spaces. Martin's track is particularly good for viewers who are new to Vivre sa vie (like myself) or to Godard in general; he discusses a lot of the director's methods and gives possible readings of certain shots and sequences without claiming to have any definitive. It does what the best commentary tracks should do -- it allows for a dialogue between the viewer and film, enriching ideas and helping create a richer, better movie experience. Also included is a 45-minute interview with film scholar Jean Narboni, conducted by film historian Noël Simsolo; though not as comprehensive or insightful as Martin's commentary track, the interview is still worth watching for anyone wishing to continue their exploration of Godard's film.
A few archival inclusions help place Vivre sa vie in its historical context. Roughly 20 minutes of excerpts from "La Prostitution," a 1961 French television piece on prostitution is included, as is an illustrated essay (which amounts to some photographs and only about a page and a half of text) from La Prostitution, the book Godard used for a lot of film's more specific details (chiefly an incredible montage in which Raoul explains the prostitute's job in voice over). A 1962 interview with star Anna Karina, conducted shortly before the film's release, gives some background on the actress's relationship with Godard, both professional and otherwise, while a decent collection of production stills provide a look at the making of Vivre sa vie. The film's original trailer is also included.
As with most Criterion Collection releases, there's also an extensive booklet that comes along with the disc. There are excerpts from an interview with Godard as well as his original "scenario" for the film, a piece about the film's music by Jean Collet, a new essay on the movie critic Michael Atkinson and a whole mess of photos. Even the sheet music for Michael Legrand's haunting theme to Vivre sa vie has been included.
For those who have never seen a Godard movie, Vivra sa vie might be a good place to start (Breathless would be even better, but this one would work, too). It's got enough of the self-reflexive commentary on cinema to show what the director is about, is perfectly constructed and boasts a heartbreaking performance by Anna Karina. Criterion's DVD treatment of the movie is up to the studio's usual high standards, providing viewers not just a great version of the film but a supplementary section that enriches the experience and gives a crash course on Godard as a director. It's a masterful package celebrating a masterful filmmaker.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery