André S. Labarthe
And so it goes, with Godard keeping French writer Michel de Montaigne’s words, “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself,” close as the theme.
Its full title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux, translating (roughly) to My Life to Live: A Film in Twelve Scenes, which is exactly what it is. The episodic film, Godard’s third, pretends it has some sort of plot, but instead works as a chain of things that happen, many of which couldn’t qualify as events.
We follow Nana (Anna Karina, Godard’s then-wife) through various Parisian locales--cafés, boulevards and, in the film’s most famous scene (and one of the director's finest), a cinema playing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, with Maria Falconetti as the martyr and object of Nana’s wide, gazing, teary eyes. Is Godard then telling us that Nana is also a martyr? Or merely another female figure condemned by men? Either way--it seems that at least Nana knows.
The twelve episodes of Vivre sa vie are captured by French New Wave icon Raoul Coutard, who worked previously with Godard on his first two features. Together, the two are incessantly curious about the streets the characters wander. Here, Coutard’s lens seems intended to observe Nana in many close-ups to conjure those “deep human emotions” Godard carried on about. This is good only when we want to stare at the cutest damn Danish actress ever, Anna Karina, but bad because we begin to ignore her character, and then the story.
Throughout, there’s the underlying feeling that more could have been done with the subject. There must be other reasons women get into prostitution other than being hurled from their apartment. Who are these girls, really? Who is Nana? Vivre sa vie is not a bad film in the early career of Godard, nor should it be immediately dismissed (not that it’s likely to be). It’s just that, by ignoring any true questions, Godard correctly predicted that, “The few episodes…I am going to film are very likely of little interest to others…but most important to Nana.”
Jean Narboni on Vivre sa vie (45:15): Novelist and film historian Noël Simsolo conducts this interview with film scholar Narboni, which was recorded in 2004. The discussion works as a terrific companion piece to the disc’s audio commentary, with Narbonne approaching Vivre sa vie in a similarly scholarly manner as Martin, but covering different ground. Clips are intercut throughout.
Cinémapanorama: Anna Karina (11:05): This interview, which aired on the French television program in 1962 just a few months before Vivre sa vie’s release, has the star sharing her experiences coming to France, working in the fashion world and her relationship with Godard.
Faire face: “La prostitution” (21:48): This 1961 episode of the French television series Faire face considers the world of prostitution through interviews, including Marcel Sacotte, the author of the 1959 book that inspired Godard, and a few Paris-based prostitutes.
Oů en est: La prostitution includes an essay by scholar James Williams that ends with: “…Godard’s use of Sacotte’s study is at once highly selective, direct, and ironically naďve.“ Also included are photos from Sacotte’s 1959 study.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 40-page booklet with Godard’s original scenario, an essay titled “The Lost Girl” by critic Michael Atkinson, interviews with Godard and a reprint of a piece by critic Jean Collet titled “An Audacious Experiment: The Soundtrack of Vivre sa vie.”