Tuesday, November 8, 2011

VIVRE SA VIE (1962) Review

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard is cinema's greatest punk, surpassing his partner in crime, Francois Truffaut with more irreverent affronts to the establishment and a greater reverence to cinema than Trufaut, who loved cinema but worshiped literature (Godard worshiped both with a greater emphasis on cinema). Both Godard and Truffaut's debuts (Breathless and The 400 Blows, respectively) immediately situated them as punks and announced, in a Sermon on the Mount fashion, that the cinema would never be the same. Vivre Sa Vie (translated as My Life to Live) was Godard's fourth film, and after dabbling in the crime, political and musical genres, turned his attention to the "message" movie popularized by Stanley Kramer. These films all have Godard's specific touch and, especially in the earlier pictures of his 60s era, show him refining his punk tendancies at the purpose of pushing cinema's boundaries.

Vivre Sa Vie is not however, business as usual, since its one of Godard's least political films and more specifically, his most Dickensian film. Godard uses his muse (and then wife) Anna Karina as a way to express his ideas, but Godard cares for Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Karina) more than most of his other characters and makes his arguments against prostitution in Paris through primarily emotional means over intellectual means. When Nana cries while watching Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, the scene is devoid of irony and instead registers as entirely genuine. In every Godard film, politics are essentially present in the lifestyles of the characters. Godard's characters frequent cafes and often purchase drinks, meals, cigarettes and pay for music to dance,  causing Capitalism to always be present in his work. This is certainly true in Vivre Sa Vie but besides this element, the film is free of Godard's direct statements and  allusions to politics which characterize his later work. From the close-ups of Anna Karina in the title sequence on, Vivre Sa Vie is primarily about Nana and her plight over any message.

Godard's treatment of prostitution in this film is not especially outrageous since he is suggesting that the line of work is dehumanizing and laced with shame. The nudity of the prostitutes is downplayed in a documentary-style, draining the eroticism of the women. Though the film's attitude to the situation at hand is fairly conventional, Godard's punk tendencies permeate the picture. In one of the film's most famous moments, the opening sequence shows Nana and her boyfriend having a discussion while the audience only sees the back of their heads. This sequence is exceptionally punk because Godard shoots this sequence this way to be knowingly irritating. But this sequence also illustrates Godard's genius by suggesting that these characters do not have much of a past but simply must exist in the ever-changing present. This idea is showcased in Nana's languid process of becoming a prostitute following her haphazard meeting with her first client. Godard's punk tendencies are further intentionally irritating with an overly long dance sequence (to get the audience to fall further in love with Karina) and Nana's quick, somewhat-trite death. These two sequences have their points and meanings, but at both times one feels Godard gleefully pissing off his audience.

Godard fits in more hip flourashes, like his shots of Karina smoking before a graffiti laced wall, but Vivre Sa Vie is one of his tightest films in that, his maddeningly pretentious moments serve directly to support his attitude about prostitution. Godard is probably the most pretentious filmmaker per dollar of film and yet, in this film, this ratio is reduced and the human element is pushed to the forefront. That is not to say that this film is not an intellectual film that resembles an essay (which many of Godard's films do, though this does not approximate his films), but the main focus of this film is to tell a story about a character that the director loves.

As usual, this film proved highly influential, especially upon filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Viewers will recognize Uma Thurman's bob in Pulp Fiction with Nana's haircut, but the influence of this film on Tarantino goes deeper. For one, Tarantino adopted the 12 named chapter structure in his segmenting of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. For another, the way that Godard playfully moves the camera in this film (the 180 degree rotating of the sequence in the cafe with Raoul (Sady Rabbot) is readily evident in the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs and the diner sequence in Death Proof.

This film registers with me as Godard's best black and white picture because of its strong humanist bent. Though I haven't seen all of his ouevre, this film is easily the most humanist of the pictures I've seen by him (which include: Breathless, Bande a Part, Le Mepris, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin Feminin). I highly recommend it.

Note: This film is available to stream for those who have a Hulu Plus account and available to purchase through the Criterion Collection.


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