Judge Gordon Sullivan lives his life against blown-up photos of Paris.
Our review of Vivre Sa Vie: Criterion Collection, published April 20th, 2010, is also available.
"Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself."—Montaigne
Between 1960 (the year of Breathless) and 1967 (the year of Weekend), Jean-Luc Godard was on fire. He was involved in directing twenty different projects, and the feature films he helmed are all classic and/or monumentally influential. His films capture the decade like few artists could, with perhaps only Bob Dylan's output matching Godard's for variety and influence. Some of his films are hopeful and others apocalyptic. Just about all of them are self-reflexive in some way. They're films about society, about the individual, and, above all, they are films about film. Vivre Sa Vie sits comfortably in the middle of Godard's decade: not his most narratively driven, but also not his most experimental film. Criterion has brought one of the more highly regarded Godard films to Blu-ray in a fantastic edition that captures the director's visual flair and supplements it with informative historical and scholarly extras.
Facts of the Case
Nana (Anna Karina, Band of Outsiders) is a Parisian shop girl and aspiring actress who can't make her rent, and her relationship with boyfriend Paul has hit the skids despite the child they share. Nana decides on a life of prostitution, selling her body but intent on keeping her soul.
It's been almost fifty years since Vivre Sa Vie was unleashed on the world, and Godard's stature has risen consistently since then. Five decades on, it's become increasingly obvious the film belongs much more to star Anna Karina than to Godard. The film is meant to be an examination of Nana's life, and Karina does such an amazing job projecting her feelings, especially through her facial expressions, that the film is almost painful to watch at times. When she's happy her whole face glows, and when she's unhappy she frowns in a way that makes me want to frown with her. Considering that, like many Godard films, there's very little dialogue, most of Nana's personality must be carried by Karina's body language and expression, and her portrayal is a true tour-de-force.
Godard, of course, is up to his old tricks. He knows that Karina's face is carrying his paper-thin narrative, so he has her attend a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc, another film where the actress' face must carry all the emotional weight of the narrative. We also get the camera movements that frustrate our expectation, like numerous shots of the back of characters' heads as they speak. Godard also refuses to use the typical shot/counter-shot construction for dialogue scenes, preferring instead to odd camera moves to highlight the speaker. We're also treated to a dance scene (a warmup for Band of Outsiders, perhaps), lots of smoking, and sometimes-opaque dialogue. The overall effect is a meditative one, where the narrative's slow buildup gives the rather abrupt ending real punch.
The third leg of the film's creative triangle is the beautiful location of Paris. The views, the shops, and the people all contribute to Vivre Sa Vie's atmosphere, and few know how to photograph the City of Lights like Godard. He rests on the details, the texture of the buildings, and the interesting faces here much like he did in Breathless. He even makes the city look good when one scene takes place in front of a blown-up photograph of the Champs-Élysées. The unreality of the background slowly sinks in and subtly reminds the viewer that film is artifice.
Vivre Sa Vie gets the deluxe treatment on this Criterion Blu-ray disc. The black-and-white picture is stunning in its clarity. Although there is some print damage, occasional flicker, and the odd bit of fading, this is almost certainly as good as the film has ever looked on home video. Fine detail was much better than I expected, although not quite up to the standards of contemporary films. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is fantastic for both dialogue and music, even if it lacks directional effects or modern mixing.
Extras are equally impressive. They start with a commentary by scholar Adrian Martin, who situates Vivre Sa Vie in Godard's overall output in the Sixties while also detailing the film's production and reception. Continuing the scholarly theme, the disc also features video of Jean Narboni being interviewed by historian Noel Simsolo. On the historical front we get an interview with Karina from 1962, and a television documentary on prostitution from 1961. There's also an "illustrated essay" on the book that partially inspired Godard's scenario and a stills gallery. The disc rounds out with the film's original trailer. Also included is a thicker-than-usual book full of essays about the film, Godard's original scenario, and an interview with the director.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite everything it has to recommend it—Godard's visual style, the beauty of the Paris locations, Karina's performance—the film is not entirely a success. Godard claims he set out to film an existential narrative, where we watch Nana turn to prostitution without judgment or even comment. The problem is that Nana is a cipher; the film's disjointed narrative doesn't give us an opportunity to see her grow with her changing conditions. She seems empty, and incapable of forming her own opinion in a variety of situations. This may be a comment on the tendency of men to dominate women in society, but more often than not it just plays like Nana is an airhead, and not a very interesting one. Godard quotes Montaigne at the film's opening, claiming that it's possible for Nana to "lend" herself to others while still keeping "herself for herself," but the way he's written the character makes it seem like there isn't much there, even before she started lending it.
Like many Godard films, Vivre Sa Vie is also not for the faint of heart. It's told in twelve "tableaux," with Nana's eventual prostitution the only real narrative thread. The sometimes elliptical dialogue and lack of narrative drive will probably make the film tough viewing for anyone not in the art-house crowd.
With the release of Vivre Sa Vie, Criterion has brought two-thirds of Jean-Luc Godard's tremendous Sixties output to digital disc. This disc is to recommend to fans of Godard's other films, especially considering the fantastic audiovisual presentation and informative extras. While Breathless and Band of Outsiders might be better places for Godard neophytes to start, Vivre Sa Vie is rightly hailed as one of Godard's masterpieces and sits nicely between the extremes of the director's often mercurial work.
Vivre Sa Vie is free to go on living its life: not guilty.
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