Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vivre sa vie

Doubling back as I am to catch Vivre sa vie, one of Jean-Luc Godard's most beloved films (oddly out-of-print until Criterion puts out their restored copy in April), I can easily spot parallels with subsequent works. It has the same tragic romanticism of Pierrot le fou, albeit inwardly, not outwardly, directed (it also reverses the gender of the dissatisfied spouse who leaves behind a partner and child). Its vision of a modern Paris forms the aesthetic backdrop for Alphaville. Its combination of verité and formalism builds on that found in Breathless and points to the clearest synthesis of the styles in Band of Outsiders.

The clearest descendant is, of course, Une femme mariée, but not for anything so simplistic as their female leads. Well, that is indeed a part of it, but Vivre sa vie can largely be seen as the much more humanistic run-through for the cynicism and critical sympathy of Godard's elegy to the married woman. Made earlier in Godard and Karina's relationship, Vivre sa vie clearly allies more strongly with its protagonist, seeking not to explain away whatever it was about Karina that vexed him so and instead invested in this character and desperate to help her even as he plots her doom.

The film marks Godard's first heightened usage of Brechtian techniques to alienate the audience, using intertitles that would later pop up in Une femme mariée. While Godard and Coutard head through the streets in a verité manner, they use not a hand-held 16mm camera but a heavier model meant for more classical filmmaking. Thus, the camera tracks on a dolly, it pans and tilts smoothly as if on a set. The effect is dissonant, breaking us from the action and heightening the artifice by nature of its harsh clash with the realistic scenes the camera depicts.

Yet Vivre sa vie is emotive, wrenching even, thanks to Karina. We meet her and her husband in a café, with their backs to the camera and their faces only somewhat visible in mirrors in the unfocused background, signifying that these people could be anybody. Nana discusses her unhappiness as her husband tries to convince her not to leave, but she's made up her mind. She's bored of her life and wants to be an actress, so she sets out on her own, sure that she'll escape her ennui in no time. But the offers don't come, and money becomes tight. So, Nana decides to become a prostitute.

But does she decide? As with the glitzy world of Une femme mariée, the Paris of this earlier feature is basking in the neon glow of capitalist progress. Pinball machines fill the cafés, bright lights advertise the cinema and other businesses; here, the City of Lights has become but one giant, flashy billboard. As he is wont to do, Godard reframes the sexuality of the story around sociopolitical implications, suggesting that Nana does not have the freedom to make her own sexual choices, that her decision to prostitute herself is not even a decision but the inevitable result of the economic and sexual shackles that bind her. Nana deludes herself into thinking that she's taking up streetwalking of her own accord, but her dire financial straits force her into the life. Later, she hitches her wagon to Raoul, the first pimp she meets, and we see how gender roles hold her back.

Karina brings warmth and tragedy to a role -- and a film -- structured to separate the audience from the material, and the result is oddly hypnotic and more involving than a melodrama that would have intentionally set out to grab our heartstrings. Her expressive eyes register mostly dispassion as she learns to set aside her feelings for her new job: she stares straight ahead as a client kisses her neck, the look on her face no different from the bored one she sports at the cafés. Raoul takes a hit of his cigarette and kisses her, and she blows out the smoke, but what might have been romantic with someone she cared for looks unsettling, as if she'd just made out with a demon.

Occasionally, though, Karina gives us a peak inside to the real Nana, and Godard manages to attune the camera perfectly to these brief but overwhelming emotional outpourings. Nana heads to one of those swanky new cinemas, amusingly to see a classic film, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. As Nana sits in the completely silent film -- Godard cuts the sound out of his own film in this scene out of respect -- we see the utter perfection of the film choice as an allegory for Nana's own life: like Nana, Jeanne is the victim of forces beyond her control, an invaluable asset, even a necessity, for the men who exploit and ultimately sacrifice her because they don't understand her. And when Godard cuts between Renée Falconetti's wild, tortured eyes and Karina's own, the effect is so heartbreaking you won't think it's too on-the-nose for a second. Little touches, such as Nana measuring herself with only her hand or her playful dance around a jukebox, show us the Nana that might have been, the carefree young lady buried under the thousand-yard stare and the boredom.

Godard's own playfulness makes Vivre sa vie inviting and amusing despite its emotional impact, and the director uses the film to build on the experimentation with sound and image editing he began in earnest with A Woman is a Woman. His shots are not alienating simply by their objective movement in a highly subjective and empathetic story but their obscuring mise-en-scène: Godard highlights the loss of the last vestige of Nana's freedom by placing Raoul's head in front of hers when he becomes her pimp, blocking out her face as they discuss details. Once again, Godard hires Michel Legran to score his film and, once again, he splinters the composer's soundtrack, each piece of music starting and stopping in fits as one tableau transitions to the next. Godard even breaks up one of Coutard's elegant pans in one scene, as he edits jump-cuts into a smooth pan to match the sound of machine gun fire outside a café. Besides the aforementioned silence during the Jeanne d'Arc segment, the sound cuts out unexpectedly after Nana has a conversation with a philosopher near the end of the film, in which she surprisingly holds her own though she doesn't realize it. The philosopher discusses the inherent limits of oral and written language, and in the next scene Godard cuts out the sound and places subtitles on the screen before inserting his own voice as narration.

I've used the word "café" numerous times in this review, because it's one of two main locations, the other being the hotel rooms where Nana makes her living. She embodies the same ennui and angst of the characters in Breathless; she just doesn't talk about it so much. The café, with its promise of stiff drinks and numbing parlor entertainment, may be the only respite for people like Nana, even though they don't yet realize what they're hiding from. The political message of Vivre sa vie, of the growing burden of capitalist excess weighing down Paris, is not fully-formed here because Godard doesn't fully see it yet. The transition from the parliamentary Fourth Republic to the presidential Fifth Republic offered a tremendous economic boon, but De Gaulle fancied himself too much in the American style, promoting an independent France even as he accepted an influx of American imports. So, the Paris of Vivre sa vie bustles with brand-new American autos and glitzy fashions and entertainment, but no one seems to have any money. With Une femme mariée, Godard successfully pinpointed this problem of pre-Reagan voodoo economics and its effect of materializing human life, but here he is tracing along the page, aware that something is wrong but unable to put his finger on it.

As Breathless ended with Michel finally getting his wish to emulate the gangsters of Old Hollywood just as he realized how pathetic it all was (not to mention his failure to remember that, under the old system, Hollywood baddies had to die or be brought to justice), so too does Nana meet her end at the hands of a world that just doesn't give a damn about her. But the power of the film is telegraphed hauntingly with this final moment, as the camera itself cannot bear to see Nana's crumpled body. It's a moment of cowardice, yes, Godard unable to look at what he himself wrought because that's his wife on the pavement playing a character he, for all his aesthetic distance, pities. But it also serves as the most human, touching moment of his career through Pierrot le fou, evidence that there is some line Godard can't cross, even if he did later in the cataclysmic finale of Pierrot. It certainly isn't the first, nor remotely the last by the looks of it, moment of capital-R Romanticism in the intellectual's bag of tricks, but it's the most searing and rending, the first definitive proof after the hoopla over Breathless' stylistic abandon and A Woman is a Woman's carefree grace that Godard was destined to last.

1 comment:

  1. You've captured the essence of this great film: the at-times unbearable tension between the Brechtian distance of the film's aesthetics and the overwhelming emotional impact of its narrative and central character. The moment in the movie theater is key in that regard, Nana watching Jeanne and being utterly moved by the parallels, realizing that her condition as an exploited, tormented woman is not unique. And Godard gives Karina a haunting, teary closeup to match the closeups of Jeanne in Dreyer's film. It's a really moving scene (and one I thought of, oddly enough, when seeing Public Enemies last year).

    This film of course announces Godard's continuing fascination with prostitution, which would be a recurring theme in his movies for years to come: as a union point between capitalism and sexuality, it's a perfect way for him to critique the dehumanizing effects of money on human affairs.