Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

Vivre Sa Vie (1962) ****
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard based on the book by Marcel Sacotte.
Starring:  Anna Karina (Nana Kleinfrankenheim), Sady Rebbot (Raoul), André S. Labarthe (Paul),  Guylaine Schlumberger (Yvette),  Gérard Hoffman (Le chef),  Monique Messine (Elisabeth).

There seems to be two main lines of thought on Jean-Luc Godard. One is that he is a cinematic genius, and as his career progressed, and he moved further away for narrative filmmaking, he became an even greater director than he already was. The people who think this, write long articles about the genius of his latest, and reportedly last, film Film Socialism. If you remember my review of that film, you know I am not in that camp, as I found Film Socialism to be a waste of time. The other school of thought is that Godard started off great in the early 1960s, and increasingly moved away from what made his 1960s output so great until he ended up becoming lost in his own pretentiousness and idea of himself. I fall more easily into that category – although I have to admit that I find some of Godard’s 1960s work unbearable as well (Two or Three Things I Know About Her comes readily to mind). Yet, when I see a film like Vivre Se Vie (1962), it makes me both happy and sad. Happy, because the film remains fresh and alive, bursting with exuberance and love of the cinema that so rarely we see on screen. And sad, because although Godard has been making films for 50 years, he so rarely again showed this same love. Like Breathless, Vivre Se Vie is a Godard masterpiece – and makes me wish he hadn’t gone off the rails somewhere along the line.

If that first paragraph has made Vivre Se Vie sound like an exciting or happy film, let me assure you that it is not. Instead, it is a film about Nana (Anna Karina), a woman who the film tries to get to know, tries to get inside of her head, and fails to. we find out early in the film that she was married until not long ago, and she has left her husband, and their daughter. The movie never explains why – perhaps because Nana herself does not know. The film simply follows her, as she goes about her life – smoking, drinking, playing pinball, working at a record store, trying to get extra money, failing, and eventually becoming a prostitute. She meets a pimp, who explains the rules of the game to her, and she follows them. She goes about her “dates” with the same lack of passion, the same bored look on her face that she does everything else in the film with.

The camera work in the film is remarkable. It is constantly moving, and yet it keeps its gaze clearly fixed on Nana. It sees her in the same way the audience sees her, studies her the same way we do as we watch her go about her life. Godard shot the movie in sequence, and didn’t do retakes – thinking that if they didn’t get it right the first time, they wouldn’t get it right the second time. So the film has an immediacy to it that is rare for films. It feels natural and real.

At the heart of the movie Anna Karina is excellent – it is probably the greatest performance ever given in a Godard film. She plays a character who is unknowable – who gives the audience just a few bare glimpses of who she really is underneath the surface that she protects herself with. She doesn’t want anyone to know her, and perhaps she doesn’t want to know herself. She doesn’t want to think, just to be who she is, make her own choices, and live or die because of them. What is remarkable about the performance, is that although Nana is all surface, we grow to love and care for her. We want her to be happy – if she can ever figure out what precisely that means – and so when the film ends in violence, as it must, it is appropriate that the camera look away. It’s too painful to see.

This is the type of film that Godard made better than anyone else did in the early 1960s. There were signs as early as the following year, with Contempt, that Godard had already grown tired of his style, and he wanted to move beyond it – although I doubt even he suspected at the time just how far beyond it he would eventually go. But no matter what I may think of later Godard, the fact remains that he is a giant of global cinema – and his place will always be assured because of films like this one.

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