Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Essays, Jean-Luc Godard

Vivre sa vie – A Life to Live in 12 Chapters

[Originally published for the UW Continuing Education Office of Cinema Studies, January 23, 1983]

By a strange process of free association I hope eventually to justify, watching a couple of Lily Tomlin’s character sketches on Saturday Night Live this past weekend reminded me of Godard’s rectangular portrait of Anna Karina/Nana Klein in Vivre sa vie. One sketch featured Edith, a wizened-wise little girl who pontificates from a huge rockingchair, dreaming up all manner of bizarre mischief and fantastic scenarios in which she must always be the star. This particular skit ended with Edith’s sudden fear of heavenly retribution for all her egocentric naughtiness. She confides that God has a television set and that he watches us on it: “When I think he’s watching me, I always try to do a commercial for myself … to show him how good I am.” In an earlier sketch, Tomlin had verified the trustworthiness of a “public service announcement” and her own spokesperson sincerity by stating: “I am not a professional actress, but a real person just like you.” Tomlin’s satirical jibes at the power of media/mediated realities to confer or deny authenticity, even the odor of sanctity, began to work for me as a comedic version of the complex collisions of art and reality in Vivre sa vie (1962). Godard’s fourth feature film is nothing if not a commercial for the “goodness” (a term I use in the Godardian, cinematic sense) of Anna Karina/Nana Klein—whether for the edification of a God who watches us all in the movies or the Platonic ideal of film critics, I would not venture to say. Vivre sa vie exemplifies the aesthetic paradoxes implicit in Godard’s critical premises about cinema, paradoxes which, more superficially, are at play in actress-comedienne Lily Tomlin’s assumption of a “real person” persona in a comic skit designed to create the illusion of pseudodocumentary.

Godard was after nothing less than Truth in the making of movies. His aesthetic politique was radicalized, if not politicized, from the beginning. As an intellectual, more given to the raptures of analysis than emotion, he could see that the genteel fraud of cinematic Art-with-a-capital-A could seduce audiences by means of artifice, creating a comfortable schism between cinema and ordinary experience. One could go into the dark and dream in a willing suspension of disbelief, but the light of day chemically redefined that suspension: dispersion of the components of the dream in liquid reality. Godard, like many of his compatriots in literature, painting, and even sculpture, consciously decided to sabotage the seductive forms and manifestations of art and artifice. The images in his movies would have the dream-stopping immediacy of newsreels or machine-gun fire in the theater aisles. He attacked the beguiling concept of plot, that aesthetic form we so cherish for its orderly shaping of experience into a beginning, middle, and end, a coherent, directed narrative itinerary which satisfies us as messy reality never—or rarely—does. His attack failed, of course, or rather turned into something else, something that allowed for the creation of his best films. For the moment Godard turned the camera on person or scene, he “framed” it, and thereby began the process of making fiction. His eye was too drawn to richly significant images and events, and too able to provocatively juxtapose them, to avoid narrative altogether. Every directorial decision he made toward the end of de-dramatizing his work metamorphosed that work into something new in the world of cinema.

Godard tried to get hold of the essentiality of experience through evidence of the accidental, the random event, found reality. These existential fragments, he thought, might be proof against artificial resolutions and complacent conclusions. For example, Vivre sa vie consists of twelve chapters, each introduced by headings stylistically akin to those of l8th-century novels like Pamela or Tom Jones. These chapter headings signal slices of or stations in Nana’s life. But they also arrest the irresistible tide of narrative which constantly threatens to carry us away from our awareness of watching filmed reality. Godard tries here to use artifice against itself: the literary convention as cinematic dike, holding back our potential fascination with visual images in motion by means of the intrusion of more static or containing novelistic structures, words, syntax, chapters, etc.

Similarly, Godard makes music, natural sound, and silence underscore the power of fiction. In the film’s credit sequence, we see Anna Karina’s face in left profile, fronting on the camera, and in right profile. What “story” could we possibly spin out of this unknown visage? Kuleshov’s venerable film experiments with the juxtaposition of an expressionless face and a crying child or a steaming bowl of soup should forewarn us, but if not, Godard demonstrates the principle: at the beginning of each of these shots, Nana’s melancholy and painfully romantic “theme” is heard. A beautiful woman and poignant music: already our imaginations, our artmaking apparatus, are at work and we are halfway into tales of love betrayed, incurable illness, the evanescence of beauty, etc. And Godard stops the music in mid-melody, jolts us right out of whatever movie we were beginning to make. But then, in silence, we contemplate Karina’s face, naked and vulnerable to that indecently prying camera eye—our gaze, too—and, as she momentarily looks down in embarrassment? shame? shyness?, two (or more) things happen. We may involuntarily go off on another quest for a story to explain this portrait of a beautiful woman, but we are also uneasily confronted with our susceptibility to the power of music, camera placement, montage, and an actress’s face to suggest significance.

In a way, Godard was insisting that cinema, or the filmmaker, was free to opt for cinéma vérité over arranged and fictionalized reality. By the very nature of the artmaking process, that freedom came to seem, even to Godard, largely illusory. Consider the café scene where Nana’s friend Yvette recounts her hard-luck story (a case history which ends up in American movies) and puts a period to it by painting herself as a helpless victim of circumstance. Nana counters with a discourse on free will and individual responsibility for one’s actions. However, her ethics are imbedded in the actual, the physical, the visible, not in abstract moral conundrums: “I raise my hand … I turn my head … I am responsible. Plates are plates … men are men … life is life.” Nana’s rectitude, her spiritual beauty, lie in her authentic expression of personality and physical grace. Within moments of this discourse, Raoul will define Nana’s identity—”lady or two-bit whore”—by testing her response, laughter or anger, to rudeness. Her behavior, and the camera’s recording of it, memorializes a moment of sensibility becoming style, or style defining sensibility. And style is an ingredient of fiction. It may well be that Anna Karina was “directed” by Godard to react spontaneously to whatever Sady Rebbot might say to her, a kind of improvisatory “screen test.” Or perhaps Godard set the scene and gave Karina her lines—just as Nana’s life may have preconditioned her to behave as she does, to laugh instead of bridle. What then happens to easy definitions of free will and responsibility, cinéma vérité and artifice? In a way, Anna/Nana has been “framed,” set up by director Godard. And in framing images and action, behavior and speech, is it possible that art has once again sneaked up on Jean-Luc, revealing him as a closet classicist, even a not-very-latent Romantic?

Anna Karina in ‘Vivre sa vie.’ Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

Godard scripted Vivre sa vie casually, and encouraged his cast to improvise behavior and dialogue, to be themselves. Karina wore her own clothes rather than costumes, moved through non-studio locales, listened and danced to actual, unmixed sounds and jukebox music, and occasionally seemed to acknowledge the presence of the camera. Godard withholds psychological motivation and frequently plunks us down right in the middle of a place, event, or conversation and challenges us to discover why it should logically follow, what came before or should precede that which is to come. Even our expectations of “star” placement in the frame are frustrated. We’ve all chuckled at bad movies and television when four people sit down cheek by jowl at a small table, leaving unoccupied a ridiculous amount of space at the front of the table so that the camera can get a good view of all their faces. In Vivre sa vie, we are often denied access to Karina’s expressive face because the camera insists on viewing her from the back, obscures her with the bulk of another character, or places her half-in, half-out of frame (one of these shots makes the curve of her naked shoulder echo that of a coat-hanger, and the hands that rest on her body as inanimate and unintimate as clothing suspended on that hanger). Having given us Karina’s apparently all-too-accessible face in three views in the credit sequence, Godard will not let us see her at all in the first scene in the film (except, barely, in a mirror). She and her husband sit at a café counter with their backs to the camera engaging in disjointed chit-chat. We’ve been tantalized by the extraordinarily evocative quality of her face, a form which satisfies in some cinematically mysterious way, Nana herself is just speaking of her desire to be “special,” to shape and dominate her existential mise-en-scène, and her “opaqueness” at the very outset of her story seems like a wanton violation of the rules of the game—like Hitchcock’s killing-off of the star with whom we’ve been encouraged to identify one-third of the way into Psycho.

The stylistic rhythm of Vivre sa vie is that of coitus interruptus: it begins, leaves off, takes another tack, stops, starts again, beckons and withdraws. Godard will not, it seems, permit the consummation we so devoutly crave as he alternates seductive fictions with devices of distantiation, such as the clinical documentary on prostitution in which the sum of each individual is reduced to his/her parts and those are equated, visually and existentially, with objects and decor. The scene which precedes this chilly exercise in dehumanization assented to the warmth and uniqueness of Nana’s personality. She sits in a café writing a letter to a prospective employer, describing her vital statistics. We watch pen move on paper making signs that are surely meant to contain an identity. Then Nana leaps up and hand-measures her height—a charming, utterly idiosyncratic gesture that defines her as no words could. (Godard echoes this contrast in the mural of Paris behind Nana and the shot of the living, shining city which directly follows this café sequence.) Raoul arrives, lays an erasing hand over the uninformative note—a good sign—and seems to recognize Nana’s specialness, to offer a relationship in motion, not freeze-framed. And yet … during their conversation, the camera moves like a metronome from a slightly right-angle view of both Nana and Raoul to frame center so that Raoul completely erases Nana to a leftward position in which both are visible, and back again. The scene ends with Nana, momentarily melancholy, alone in the frame. The cumulative effect of the camera’s movement is that of a deadly, almost hypnotic swing of a pendulum. The camera remains indifferent to the fascination of the luminous face and personality which ought to be the fulcrum of its motion. In a later scene, Nana dances to jukebox music while Raoul talks with a business associate (even her dance maintains the stop-start tempo of the film). This brief improvisatory (by Nana? By Anna?) fling gifts us with the ineffable beauty and charm of a girl fashioned to be in motion, to be in movies. In a subjective shot, she/we see the bored, unmoved expressions on Raoul’s and Luigi’s faces. Their eyes are cold, flicking over her like flies, measuring her street value or sizing her up for a shroud. They represent an emotional stop to the free rhythm of her dance, foreshadowing Raoul’s final, casual cutting-off of all her motion and grace.

Anna Karina, Godard’s wife until Pierrot le fou (1965), was a professional actress when she portrayed Nana, but Godard’s documentary and improvisatory approach is clearly meant to dissolve any distinctions between actress and character. Nana dreams of being a movie star, of being special, but appears to be an ordinary shopgirl-prostitute—even as the camera makes extraordinary and memorializes her every expression and gesture. Godard provides many containers for the reality that is Nana, many con(“texts”) by means of which she may be fixed, pinned and wriggling, to the wall. Is she kin to Zola’s Nana? Is she the girl Godard describes in the advertisement he wrote for Vivre sa vie: “A film on prostitution which tells how a young, pretty Paris shopgirl gives her body but keeps her soul as she passes through appearances to sainthood. A series of adventures which make her understand all possible profound human feelings and which has been filmed by Jean-Luc Godard and played by Anna Karina.” Is the admonitory epigraph from Montaigne directed at Nana? Paul, Nana’s husband, tells an odd little tale about what you find when you remove the outside and inside of a chicken. Godard’s camera turns to look at Karina as though speculating whether this poule might offer the opportunity to test the premise. After all, it was Godard who wrote: “Style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” And: “To photograph a face is to photograph the soul behind it. Photography is truth. And the cinema is the truth 24 frames a second.” Nana is identified with Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s great film about another woman who gave her body but kept her soul. She is seen as the subject of a police interrogation, spelling out her name letter by letter, forced “to describe the unanchored quality of her life, and to recount her miserable attempt at small-time theft. Her thoughts and feelings are, to all intents and purposes, made visible as she listens to a jukebox song, “My girl’s no movie queen…,” watches an ordinary couple mesmerized by love, and awaits Raoul—who looks her over as a potentially valuable piece of merchandise. Nana appears to us at work, in combat with her concièrge, in philosophical discourse, at contemplative rest, and finally, as cinematic analogue for the unfortunate young woman in Poe’s “The Oval Portrait.” So many possible versions, definitions, readings of Nana. Do we end by achieving some irreducible knowledge of who Nana was and what her life meant? Or has she and her life been defictionalized into documentary, case history, newsreel? And how is Vivre sa vie a commercial for Anna Karina’s/Nana Klein’s “goodness”?

In answer to all of these questions, I would simply reply that Godard’s Vivre sa vie is Anna Karina and that in some not readily describable way, Godard’s collaborations with Karina transmogrified her into the purest of cinematic images, into cinema itself. Her “goodness,” her secular grace, is like that of Falconetti as Dreyer’s Joan. The real Maid of Orléans was burnt at the stake for her beliefs, and God may have taken notice. But Joan’s life and death were never realized until Falconetti, under Dreyer’s direction, willingly gave up her incomparable face to the camera—and perhaps her soul as well, since apocrypha has it that she was not ever again able to extract her identity from that of Joan. This immolation of self into image is a dangerous, courageous act. Those who risk it belong to a distinguished fellowship of cinematic saints and holy whores, a fellowship whose members are most notably Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich (when directed by Josef von Steinberg), Louise Brooks (in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box), Falconetti, Jeanne Moreau (in Jules and Jim), and Hanna Schygulla (in anything by Fassbinder). Its novitiates must include Jean Seberg (in Breathless), Catherine Deneuve (in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid), Martine Carol (in Max Ophuls’s Lola Montès), Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson (in Bergman’s Persona), and, yes, even the doomed little Warhol creation Edie Sedgwick. These are actresses, often not conventionally beautiful, for whom the camera has an irresistible affinity. They express such authenticity of style and grace, sometimes only in the presence of that mechanical voyeur, that the eye would not willingly leave them. The camera is always seduced by visages which are simultaneously impervious and utterly accessible to its ravishing gaze, faces which give nothing away, yet seem to register and aestheticize everything that is human—and more. Often these actresses work with a single director, for whom they become indispensible in the alchemical creation of movies. In time, they are no longer separate from the art—they become cinema itself. As they do, they take on a terrible beauty and power, the utterly indifferent gaze of the goddess-muse—like Jean Seberg’s at the end of Breathless, like the archaic statue that has Catherine’s face in Jules and Jim. These cinematic ikons shine with a ruthless autonomy once freed of the artist’s imagination. Such actresses, as cinema itself, are, in Fassbinder’s terms, holy whores, offering themselves up to a martyrdom of many eyes. The sale of self, even of soul, is requisite to the viewer’s escape from self, is the stuff of necessary transubstantiation in this holy/unholy communion. Cinema confers the gift of eternal celluloid life, a place in the hagiology of art, but as in Vivre sa vie and Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” the seed of death is at the heart of that immortality.

VIVRE SA VIE (My Life to Live).  Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.  Films de la Pléiade. 1962.  Scenario: Godard; documentation from “Ou en est la prostitution?” by Marcel Sacotte. Cinematography: Raoul Coutard; operators: Claude Beausoleil, Charles Bitsch. Editing: Agnès Guillemot, Lita Lakshmanan. Music: Michel Legrand; song “Ma mome, elle joue pas les starlettes” by Jean Ferrat and Pierre Frachet. Produced by Pierre Braunberger.  (82 minutes)
Cast: Anna Karina (Nana Kleinfrankenheim), Sady Rebbot (Raoul), André S. Labarthe (Paul), Guylaine Schlumberger (Yvette), Brice Parain (the philosopher), Eric Schlumberger (Luigi), Peter Kassowitz (young man; voice dubbed by Godard).

Anna Karina in ‘Vivre sa vie.’ Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

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