You know all those easily forgettable modern quasi-romantic melodramas that try so hard to pull at the emotions at every turn and only fool the easily manipulated thanks to the usual tired plot points repeated over and over again? Well, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 masterpiece Vivre Sa Vie: film en douze tableaux STILL spits all over their graves thanks to the director’s remarkable technique and the simple, powerful performance given by Anna Karina as a young woman trying and failing to achieve anything resembling a happy life.
Presented in twelve scenes, each one chock full of what looks like first take genius, this look at one woman’s life and fate isn’t at all your run of the mill tearjerker at all and in fact may almost seems like a documentary at times. Karina’s naturalistic acting is flawless as she plays a character who uproots her own life in the pursuit of some kind of evolving dream that devolves as the film progresses to its abrupt finale. This is one you’re not going to walk away smiling about, but it sure as heck makes for a greatly depressing conversation piece…
At the beginning of the film, we see Karina as Nana in a bit of turmoil as she’s split from her husband and child and is barely not scraping by as a clerk in a record store. It seems she wants to become a model and has had some photos taken, but she’s also trying to borrow money from her co-workers to pay bills and is eventually kicked out of her apartment. As it’s broken into twelve chapters, the film doesn’t follow a straightforward narrative at all, but shows bits of Nana’s existence as a series of scenes set around Paris as her spiral takes her further downward. She goes from seeing a few men in a sort of casual manner to later becoming a prostitute, all the while not having much of a common sense outlook for her future.
Godard stages and shoots some scenes with incredible flair, but in such a way that you might not notice their virtuosity at first. Characters speak with their backs to the camera in the first scene and the camera seems to drift around in others as if were a casual observer to Nana’s eking out her living. There’s a brilliant and completely silent scene in a movie theater showing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant and completely silent La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and later on, Nana has a deep conversation with the noted French philosopher Brice Parain that’s mind expanding to the point that you wish Godard would have made an entire film about it to go with this one.
This is the sort of film that thanks to most of the staging and some of the more static camera work would make an excellent play, but works best as a film in this case because it uses the language of film so well. As the film progresses, Nana ends up with a Louise Brooks bob (which could be seen as a Pandora’s Box reference) and there’s a fantastic segment where the French prostitution rules of the era are read aloud with Nana asking about different parts of them in a matter of fact manner. During this part we see Nana going through a series of quick silent scenes of her new life as this dialog between her and the narrator (which I believe was Godard). While she’s smiling at times, there’s clearly no real joy in this part of the film – it’s just her new life and she’s pretty settled in at this point.
As your head is swirling from all the wonderful camera movements and Karina’s flat out incredible work, the ending may catch you by surprise whether you expected it or not. It’s a shocker and it’s clear that Godard has you right where he wants you when the film cuts away then off to an even more clipped back screen. It may have been her life, but poor Nana’s rootless meandering through it meant nothing to some of those around her who put her even more in harm’s way over a financial transaction gone really wrong.
I say team this up with something silly (Pretty Woman comes to mind) for a bit of Yin and Yang on that next movie night. Or just go full on depressed mode and see if Looking For Mr. Goodbar or even the aforementioned Pandora’s Box is available. My money is on your remembering this one over the rest…