When Anna Karina weeps during the climax of her viewing of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, is she doing so because she’s moved by the tragedy of the heroine’s plight at the judgment of hundreds of men or because of Falconetti’s majestic performance? Which way you lean will also suggest whether you think Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie translates to My Life to Live or My Muse’s Life to Preserve. Godard and Karina were married at the time, and this brief pamphlet of photogenic misery marked their second cinematic collaboration after the breezy A Woman Is a Woman. If the earlier film made Karina an object worthy of deification, it was Vivre which complicated the relationship between director and star, husband and wife, man and woman. And no amount of careful delineation through the subtitular “tableaux” can diminish the dialectic tension between the performer and the author. Many great directors tackle the subject of hookers. But how many bait their hooks with their own spouses? Vivre‘s schematic plot, which Godard deliberately pieced together in a manner he likened to placing blocks side by side, shows how a despondent, underpaid, over-primped record shop girl starts to fall behind on her personal accounts payable, loses the safety net represented by her ex, and almost accidentally stumbles into a life of prostitution.
Godard begins the movie by showing Karina’s visage from every angle but frontal (as Michel Legrand’s 12/8 dirge floats into the soundtrack and just as quickly out), keeping audiences at arm’s length from his tragic heroine, Nana. The entire first scene is played with the back of her head to the camera, and her melodramatic attempt to break back into her apartment is filmed from high overhead. It isn’t until Nana slips into a screening of the Dreyer film that she is rewarded with her own juicy close-up, both Falconetti and Godard’s gift to the actress, their “pass” into the realm of performance. Almost immediately from that point on, Nana moves through her boxlike tableaux with a confidence and inquisitiveness that doesn’t feel as though it should jibe with her full immersion into prostitution; she converses with former girlhood friends who have similarly fallen into turning tricks, she dances freely to start-and-stop jukebox tunes, she measures her height by tracing up the entire length of her body with her index finger and thumb. Every such detail of her existence is as lovingly rendered by Godard as the earlier scenes were kept private and sullen.
So why is it that prostitution brings Nana (and Karina) into full flower? Because this is “the movies,” as placed in quotation marks by both Godard’s signature distancing techniques as well as Karina’s enthusiastic vitality. As much as one wants to pick apart the movie seeking evidence of who is in control, the movie that emerged from, among other things, the text of a magistrate’s study on the sociology of prostitution is also something like a perfect marriage. Tableau eight (“Afternoons - Money - Sinks - Pleasure - Hotels”), a dispassionate Q&A explication of the mechanics of Nana’s workday, should shatter illusions and disabuse everyone of any mystique the profession might hold. But the monotone commentary is also accompanied by a rapid-fire montage of asymmetrical labor, in its own way more cinematically titillating than one single, splashy sex scene could ever be. Godard’s stab at documentary theatrics is consistently overhauled each time Karina winkingly looks directly into the camera. And if the movie’s blunt, almost careless ending resonates, it’s not just because Nana’s death does not allow her the benefit of one final Joan of Arc close-up, but also because the loss of Karina’s performance renders the usually reliably chatty Godard at a total loss for words. I can relate.
Another example of just how sumptuous black-and-white photography can look in Blu-ray. Criterion's transfer is rich with monochromatic hues, and features few, if any, artifacts. If some of the imperfect previous video transfers of this and other early Godard films have left many with an exaggerated sense of his off-the-cuff stylism, transfers like this one indicate he was also capable of extremely careful framing. (All due credit to Raoul Coutard's work behind the camera.) The monaural sound mix, however, does seem off the cuff and hastily stitched together, which was entirely Godard's intention. The verité atmospherics are faithfully, if sometimes maddeningly, presented in uncompressed state.
Excepting the penultimate tableau (featuring philosopher Brice Parain), Vivre Sa Vie is one of Godard's least conversational movies, but that hardly stops Criterion from letting everyone else do all the talking. There's enough text and commentary on this disc to fill two volumes. The booklet alone packs two essays, one article, and one interview with Godard into its 42 pages. And critic Adrian Martin packs as much into his dense commentary track as he can muster given the movie's relatively scant 83-minute running time. (The video interview between film scholar Jean Narboni and Noël Simsolo runs nearly half the length of the feature.) There are a couple of vintage featurettes, one a televised interview with Anna Karina on the eve of the movie's release, and another a TV news feature on prostitution, which is itself coupled with the sociological text Godard loosely transliterated for the screen. Finally, you can take off your reading glasses to enjoy the stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
I could watch Anna Karina compose a letter for hours.