Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The last paragraph spoils the ending.

The timing of my second viewing of Vivre sa vie could scarcely have been more fortuitous. I saw it as the second in a double feature with Une femme est une femme, another film starring Anna Karina that critically deals with the objectification of women (albeit in a far more lighthearted context). Vivre proves that Godard's sympathy towards women extends far beyond the screen, and is a suitably bitter chaser to the lark that precedes it. Even more fortuitous, though, was that it came shortly after my first viewing of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, another film about someone trapped in a system. A Man Escaped's Nazi POW camp is a far more concrete and direct symbol of systematic oppression than the insidious mix of patriarchy and economic domination that rules Nana (Karina) in Vivre. What's more, both approach their subject with a spare style that positions camera and actors with the exactitude of a posed model. The result is that both films place emphasis on gestures and mannerisms, both repressive and transgressive, in the context of a daily routine. In fact, modeling is the most prominent motif throughout Vivre sa vie. The film's first image is a profile of Karina (who was a model herself when Godard discovered her), with superimposed credits. Then a head-on close-up. Then a profile of her other side. This triad of shots has an air of posing and objectification, like a mugshot, and it's clear from Karina's expression that she's not exactly thrilled about it. The camera cuts to the first of its 12 tableaux title cards, and then — surprise, surprise, to the only view of her head we haven't seen, the back.

The camera lingers on this view for the entirety of the scene's dialogue, a break-up with her husband that would traditionally seem to require anguished close-ups. But Nana is a mystery to us and herself (her plan is to become an actress, another pursuit of posing), and so we can only truly see her in the most literal, physical terms. 
Godard, enfant terrible that he is, is less interested in repetition and variation than Bresson (though the repetition of Vivre's theme strongly echoes Mozart's Mass in C-minor in Escaped), but the sense of a rigidly structured lifestyle is unmistakable, as the second tableau makes clear: "2: The record store - Two thousand francs - Nana lives her life". When we get our first post-credits glimpse of Nana's face, she is surrounded by rows and stacks and shelves of records, a world of tabulation and organization. This is how Nana lives her life — in want of money and submerged in systematization. Nonetheless, she clings to her philosophy of personal agency. "I think we're always responsible for our actions. We're free.”

For survival's sake, Nana turns herself over fully to that systematization and becomes a prostitute. When she is hired by the pimp Raoul, there is a lengthy montage of shots of her conducting her daily trade as Raoul describes in formal detail how she can act, where she can go, who she must accept into her bed — namely, anyone who pays. But though she'll sacrifice her body, she will not sacrifice her soul for capital: she desperately refuses to kiss her first client on the mouth. 
This is why Nana cries when she sees Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. She recognizes in the ideal of martyrdom a defeat in body, but not in spirit. She painfully accepts that ideal. Because of this, Nana will not take everyone who pays — "sometimes it's degrading" — and seeks answers elsewhere, finding some comfort in a philosophical conversation with an intellectual who reaffirms the articulation of selfhood through language. Soon, she finds a lover willing to give her shelter, and she decides enough is enough. But it's too late. For Raoul, the separation of body and spirit is a non-negotiable violation of contract, and his decision to sell her to another pimp supercedes her resignation. The irony of inevitable patriarchal domination could not have been lost on Godard: Nana's only option is to trade herself to another man, but even this is not her choice. One exchange is exchanged for another exchange, a more financially sensible one. Raoul drives her out to the deal, uses her as a human shield when it goes sour, and then she is shot and killed and left dead in the road. The alternate title for A Man Escaped, the biblical quote “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”, may be an even better match for Vivre Sa Vie. Nana, for all her dreaming and yearning, has wound up as an ignominious corpse in the road, subject to the whims of a system of ruthless economization. Random. Pointless. And yet, like Dreyer's Joan at the stake, her sacrifice and quiet rebellion of the spirit lends her some dignity — the noble ideological certitude of a martyr who had nothing to hold onto but herself. It was her life to live, and no one could see poor Nana on the ashpalt and think that she didn’t deserve better for it.

Further reading:
"An Audacious Experiment: The Soundtrack of Vivre Sa Vie" - Jean Collet at Criterion
Essay by Adrian Danks at Senses of Cinema
Essay by Frieda Grafe at Vertigo Magazine
Susan Sontag on Vivre Sa Vie
"(Post) Modern Godard" by Shun-Liang Chao at Synoptique


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