Over the course of twelve chapters we experience the life of Nana (Karina), an aspiring actress and shop assistant who turns to prostitution when her acting career fails to take off.
There comes a point where you have to just sit back and declare that some things aren’t for you. You’ve tried them, often numerous times, but always with a similar, less than stellar result. No matter how hard you try, it’s just not something you can get on board with. And so it is with me and the cinema of the French New Wave. It’s not the worst I’ve seen – I’d possibly hand that crown to Godard’s À bout de souffle – but Vivre sa Vie comes close. It strikes me as a film in which the director is actively challenging the audience to pay attention, providing as he does multiple occasions where surely only the most fervent of viewers can remain engaged. Throughout this film we witness an entire letter being hand written, word by word, with the camera focussed intently on the letter. A poem is recited, in full. A conversation is had with French philosopher Brice Parain. And through all the ambling, overly self reflective, ponderous yet vapid naval gazing I struggle to maintain a grip on my conscious state as Godard hints at, but never fully embraces a narrative.
OK, so I don’t like French New Wave. Lots of people do, and amongst film critics the sheer volume of them puts me in an incorrect minority, which I’m OK with. So ignoring the New Wave tropes and my own personal predilections against them, what are we dealing with here? It’s clear that Godard adores Anna Karina. She’s in practically every scene, and Godard covers every inch of her face from every angle imaginable, usually in quite an extreme close-up, and who can blame him? She’s stunning, and is certainly a captivating screen presence. Of course, it helped that Godard and Karina were married, and she was famously his muse for several other works until a year after their divorce in 1965. Karina has a way of making even the most mundane activities captivating, whether it be measuring her own height using one hand or dancing provocatively around a room of oblivious, nonchalant men. It’s interesting how Godard uses her face, or rather his camera. At times we see conversations entirely shot from behind, the camera switching from the back of one person’s head to another. It’s certainly an interesting and innovative way of deliberately portraying a discussion, but one wonders how effective it is at conveying whatever the intention may have been. If the aim was to create an initial distance between the audience and the characters that would never be decreased, then mission accomplished. Elsewhere there are the long unbroken shots characteristic of the New Wave, but they are simple and unimpressive, adding more instances where the focus can be lost from the audience’s perspective.
Narrative-wise I found the loose plot unsatisfying and uncompelling. The chaptered structure deprived the film of any kind of flow, as did the staccato snippets of smaller scenes that might have been of interest had more time been spent on them, such as when gunfire is heard and a bloodied man stumbles into the location Nana is in, but she flees with the camera following before any more can be ascertained of the situation. Similarly, the final moments are ambiguous and under-defined, in a manner that would have been even more frustrating had I cared one iota for the characters involved. There’s clearly a severe juxtaposition between the attitudes towards the sex industry held in 60s era France and today, with Nana just sort of falling into prostitution almost on a whim, when a man on the street propositions her, and she goes along with it, winging her first client. I approved of the montage explaining the literal ins and outs of the prostitution industry, especially given the legal ramifications, but it also bizarrely skirted around the issue of sex, almost implying that the men just wanted someone to play patty cake with in a private hotel room.
This is a film that elsewhere has been described as “a perfect film” and “a masterpiece of cinema” by critics far more knowledgeable than I, so if you’re a fan of French New Wave or even cinema in general, there’s a high chance you’ll appreciate what Godard is doing here, it’s just something that I’ve yet to understand the appeal of.
Vivre sa Vie is available from today, August 24th, and is released on Blu-Ray and DVD from the BFI.
The release includes the French and UK theatrical versions (the UK release has English-language chapter intertitles), a feature length audio commentary by film critic Adrian Martin, The archival interview In Conversation: Anna Karina and Alistair Whyte (1973, 37 mins), an illustrated booklet including full film credits and new writings from David Thompson and Virginie Sélavy, and three of Godard’s short films; Charlotte et Véronique, ou Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (1957, 21 mins), Une histoire d’eau (1958, 12 mins) and Charlotte et son Jules (1958, 13 mins).