(Notes from a 2003 class.)
Paris in 1962 was arguably the most exciting place in the world for cinephiles – true obsessives about cinema. ‘La nouvelle vague‘, the outpouring of films by new young French directors, was at its height and readily appreciated by both a young audience, better educated and newly affluent, and by filmmakers across the world, including in the UK and the US.
There were over a hundred first-time filmmakers who made up la nouvelle vague, but it is a small group of ex-critics from the magazine Cahiers du cinéma who have been most remembered. Jean-Luc Godard made his first feature A bout de souffle in 1959 and quickly followed it with Le petit soldat (1960) and Une femme est une femme (1961). Vivre sa vie was his fourth feature and the third to star his young wife Anna Karina. Godard’s early career almost defies critical belief. Producing films on very modest budgets at a prolific rate, whilst at the same time learning how to direct and how to re-invent cinema is no mean feat. Each of the first four films brings together ideas about art, philosophy, and modern life refracted through forms of popular cinema and a conscious attempt to question the conservative conventions of film style and narrative.
“…this initial fixation upon and investigation of Nana’s image, in particular her face, from a variety of perspectives, is the essence of Vivre sa vie. So despite its surface break-up into twelve chapters, its notation as a treatise on prostitution (from actual reportage), its essayistic and discursive qualities, and its extremely varied audio-visual devices, all elements which attempt to survey and understand the outside of the subject, Vivre sa vie is most candidly a ‘documentary’ of Nana’s image (and subsequently the image of Godard’s then wife, Karina). Elements such as Nana’s visual similarity to Louise Brooks, her emotional reaction to and identification with Joan while ‘silently’ watching Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and various other references to films and stars, highlight the cinematic self-consciousness of this work and its engagement with a history of images (cinematic, photographic, literary, etc.). The film itself becomes a record (similar in effect to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), a catalogue of postures, poses, gestures, everyday, real and performed actions. And also a record of the social, economic, sexual and cultural circumstances that lead to Nana’s situation and the philosophical and existential dilemmas she encounters. The film doesn’t exactly present an argument but rather a series of observations, approaches and reports denuded of many of the trappings of fictional narrative cinema.” Adrian Danks (2000)
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was a highly praised Danish film made in 1928 with Maria Falconetti as Joan. Louise Brooks was an American who became a star in Germany for the director G.W. Pabst. In one of her classic films, The Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929), she plays a young woman cast out of a middle-class family home after her seduction by an older man. Forced to stay in a home until her child is adopted, she turns to prostitution.
Vivre sa vie includes ‘documentary’ accounts of Nana’s life, but it is also presented in twelve ‘tableaux’ “to emphasise the theatrical, Brechtian side. I wanted to show the ‘Adventures of Nana’ side of it” (Godard in Milne & Narboni, 1972). Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) promoted a political theatre which used various devices to ‘distance’ the audience, to stop them getting too involved in ‘story’ and to make them think about the process of presenting a narrative and the social context of the events it portrays.
Godard was trying to “film a thought in action” (a typically slippery Godardian quote from Milne and Narboni). The film includes important dialogue, full of the usual Godardian allusions to art and culture, and the image is often subservient to what we hear, Raoul Coutard’s cinematography still manages to create a tone that suits Anna Karina’s presence and there are moments, such as her electric dance around the billiards table, when it isn’t too difficult to see why Godard’s seemingly ‘specialised film’ attracted a large audience in 1962.
Godard and narrative
In his first feature-length film, A bout de souffle, Godard presented a recognisable narrative that drew on the Hollywood ‘B’ crime film – “a boy, a girl and a gun”, to quote the director. Even so, Godard saw fit to break or distort other familiar narrative conventions, including those to do with editing and sound in particular. Some of Godard’s inventions in the film may have been prompted by his chronic lack of budget and some by a simple ignorance (by both Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard) about how it was done ‘properly’ in the French studios. Even so, the invented ways of constructing a film worked well and enabled Godard to move forward quickly and by Vivre sa vie he was already fulfilling a desire to ‘write an essay on cinema’ rather than simply to ‘tell a story’.
Like many other nouvelle vague films, Vivre sa vie was filmed on the streets and in the cafés of Paris. Narrative space is represented in a conventional way as is narrative time. The assault on our sense of narrative development comes rather from a refusal to comply with our expectations of how actors will be presented within the space – the film opens with Nana facing away from the camera, instead of conventional mid-shots we are often offered close-ups or side-on compositions. Godard’s trademark slow tracking shots appear as Nana drifts into prostitution. Characters walk out of or through static frames. The soundtrack features voiceovers and music which starts and stops abruptly. Seemingly important dialogue is sometimes delivered by characters who are off-screen. We could argue that the whole film is held together only by the focus on Anna Karina – who is mesmerising.
There is a story – Nana’s story of her gradual decline into prostitution and criminality – and if an audience clings to the conventional notion of narrative, the story can be followed. This story is affecting enough because of Karina’s performance and the unexpected ending, but somehow the ‘essay’ about what cinema could be seems much more compelling. By ‘breaking the rules’, Godard gets closer than the continuity editing of Hollywood to presenting ‘social reality’, with all its complexity, on screen.
1. To what extent do Godard’s techniques ‘distance’ the audience and prevent us identifying too closely with Nana?
2. If Vivre sa vie is what Godard often referred to as an ‘essay’, what does it suggest about cinema, art and the possibility of moving beyond entertainment to explore ‘realities’.
3. How important are the conventional genre elements of Nana’s story in providing the framework for Godard’s ideas?
4. How do we feel when we watch the film – frustrated, bored, enraptured, emotionally involved?
References and further reading
Adrian Danks (2000) ‘Vivre sa vie‘ on www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/5/cteq/vivre.html
Tom Milne & Jean Narboni (eds) (1972) Godard on Godard, London: Secker & Warburg
V. F. Perkins (1967) ‘Vivre sa vie‘ in Ian Cameron (ed) The films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista