Vivre Sa Vie (1962)


Food: In the interest of maintaining my appetite for the brunch that was to follow this viewing, I only brought coffee to the movie itself. Brunch afterward consisted of delicious avocado toast with a side of two eggs (scrambled & with sriracha). The table shared pita and hummus. I also ordered a mimosa. I definitely recommend this spot – Eastwood in the Lower East Side – is a delightful spot with a lot of natural light, a thorough record collection and Middle-Eastern cuisine.

Film: Continuing on my theme of Godard classics, Vivre Sa Vie is a must-see starring Anna Karina as a woman in search of freedom – and struggling with where to find it. After this one, I left feeling like the theme in Godard films, if there is one, is that they often focus on conveying a feeling more than a story. This one is melancholic and reflective. Divided into 12 chapters, the story is told by throwing the audience into the middle of each scene with missing context and allowing them to pick up the pieces.

Each scene/chapter uses different cinematic techniques to convey what is happening. The first one is one of the most interesting. A couple is sitting at the bar stools of a cafe having a conversation, facing away from the viewer, but just in earshot. It makes the audience feel like eaves droppers on what seems to be a very important conversation about a woman leaving her husband and child in search of a new life in acting.

Roger Ebert wrote about this film – and noted that Godard once said “The camera is a second presence.” Ebert noted: “The camera is not just a recording device, but a looking device, that by its movements makes us aware that it sees her, wonders about her, glances first here and then there, exploring the space she occupies, speculating.” There is another scene where the camera follows with a pan shot, views her from one side of a conversation, then spins the other way and stops on her face again. Another is when she – bored and silly – dances around a near empty bar room while onlookers mostly ignore her, but the camera follows.

As was the case with Contempt, this film also uses other stories to run parallel within the film to illustrate and mirror the plot. Contempt relies fully on one main script,”The Odyssey” to pull this off, whereas Vivre Sa Vie actually does it through a lot of various conversational anecdotes.  The most obvious is a scene where Nana (Anna Karina) sits in a theater watching the silent film The Passion Of Joan of Arc and cries to herself transfixed on the moment when Joan of Arc is told of her fate.

There is another moment where Paul, tells a story about a chicken saying, “The chicken has an inside and an outside. Remove the outside and you find the inside. Remove the inside and you find the soul.”  Taking away all outward possessions – money, security, home, family – you are only left with the inner self. When you degrade the typical inner self, and strip that further down to the bare bones, all that is left is the soul. This is an exact foretelling of Nana’s fate. We are given two scenes of confirmation of her lack of monetary means – one where she is defending her decision to try to steal 1000 francs to the police and another where she wanders around the record store where she works casually asking for 2000 francs from her coworkers. Another story that is told about a man who constantly runs away from danger, and then suddenly stops to think, and it kills him because when he puts one foot in front of the other, there is dynamite that kills him. It is possible that this anecdote makes more sense in French, but I liken it to the idea that a person who is always afraid of heights, finally decides to go skydiving and then becomes the rare unlucky person who dies doing that. Or maybe much more simply, it is saying something about Nana’s inability to face vulnerability – she just smokes and chases meaningless experiences in a way to cope with her emotions and in search of some sort of peace of mind – never finding it. Maybe he is challenging her to face her demons?

Nana continues to fall deeper into the world of prostitution – though, she seems to do so knowingly and intentionally. It does not seem out of total destitute nor force. She even monologues at one point that she is responsible for every choice she makes, for better or for worse, saying “When I turn my head, I am responsible.” It is worth noting that this film takes place at a very interesting time in France for prostitution. Where it was legal and openly accepted in society from the middle ages on, it wasn’t until 1946 that changes to the law started to enact changes to prostitution – when a law was passed that made it illegal to organize and exploit the act of prostitution and many of the brothels were closed, but the prostitutes themselves were still legally allowed to carry on business themselves. It was difficult for the government to regulate these laws, and therefore in 1958 the OCRTEH (Office central pour la repression de la traite des etres humains) was created to combat this issue. “Abolition” was the term that was used to refer to the abolition of the laws and regulations that make distinctions between prostitution and the population, and the abolition of prostitution itself. Police had files on prostitutes from previous decades of work – and it wasn’t until 1960 until they were destroyed. That is only 2 years prior to the making of this movie – in which I believe it is intended to depict that year, being modern times. It makes sense because the acts themselves seem to take place in a hotel, and at the point in which Nana strongly considers entering this world full on, she speaks with pimp Raoul, who outlines the rules for her – one of them being the requirement of a government issued medical test to ensure that one does not have HIV/AIDS. At the time when I viewed this film, I wasn’t sure what the laws were and found this portion of the film to be odd. I also found it a little odd that her friend had also so casually entered into this profession and neither women seemed to be overly stigmatized by it -unless we were only seeing them up against a certain crowd.

This film is masterful, curious, evocative, sobering and brilliant.

I couldn’t find sources to back this up, but Ebert stated that at the time, France referred to the world of prostitution as “the life” – which gives double meaning to the title of the film.

Nana chose the life she lives. Nana is responsible for her own happiness. Nana is responsible for her own demise.


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