DVD: Vivre Sa Vie (France, 1962)

Vivre Sa Vie

In the popular and academic consciousness, Jean-Luc Godard is the personification of the Nouvelle Vague. With Godard as the supreme auteur, other French filmmakers like François Truffaut have often been forced into his penumbra. Yet, how many filmgoers have actually seen a Godard film aside from the ubiquitous A Bout de Souffle? And where does his reputation stem from?

With the release of Vivre Sa Vie as part of Madman’s Directors Suite series, Australia is one of the few countries producing this remarkable early Godard feature on DVD. Filmed in 1962, soon after the release of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, Godard’s film has neither the epic sweep nor the moments of joyous reverie that Truffaut provides, but is, in its own quiet way, a work of startling originality and contemplation.

With Brechtian élan, the film is cut into a dozen tableaux by simple white-on-black titles that herald, not without ambiguity or irony, the subsequent action. The central character, Nana, played by the effortlessly sexy Anna Karina, is a young woman from Moselle who has come to Paris in search of stardom but soon slips into the demimonde of daylight streetwalkers in order to pay her debts. Around this simple conceit, Godard weaves a tapestry of characters, documentary-like dialogues and literary references.

The intertextuality of the film is both implicit—Nana is the name of an Emile Zola novel on prostitution and Karina closely resembles silent film star Louise Brooks, who starred as a demimondaine in the 1929 Pandora’s Box—and explicit—Montaigne and Poe are quoted, a clip of Jeanne D’Arc by Carl Dreyer is shown. The common factor is that we are asked to reflect on these allusions with respect to Nana, who is often watched by the camera—lovingly and voyeuristically—as she listens to others. At times, a quotation is accompanied by the camera panning away from the actors and onto the street scene outside the café, contextualising Nana’s story and reminding us of the untold stories outside the frame.

The intertextuality also serves to engage us critically but not in a necessarily detached manner. Indeed, the tone of the film has an unsettlingly believable coolness that nevertheless allows for empathy. Godard does not seem to be interested in psychology, but something beyond that, something essential and poetic. In some ways the film appears set on displaying rather than telling, in proving rather than analysing, but it is impossible to dismiss it as superficial flippancy. We perhaps get a clue as to what Godard is trying to achieve in stripping away the psychological interior life of the characters when one character quotes a little girl: “A bird is an animal with an inside and outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside, and you see the soul.” At least in Vivre Sa Vie, she’s right.

The DVD provides a fine print but the subtitles are at times negligently sparse in their translation and Francophones will be treated to a richer level of verbal exploration. The extras section has an informative commentary from Adrian Martin and a treat in the shape of a kinetic, funny early short film by Godard and Truffaut called Une Histoire d’Eau.