“The camera is a witness.” — Godard on Vivre Sa Vie
Jean Luc-Godard’s first flight was slow and iffy. Although a prolific writer for Cahiers Du Cinema, he was the last of the French New Wave directors to complete a film, and his initial work ethic does not instill one with great faith in his abilities: no script; a storyline that continued to mutate on a daily basis; no shooting permits; a cast and crew kept in the dark until the last minute. And yet somehow, Breathless, released in 1960, quickly became the pinnacle of urban Sixties Euro-chic and remains today arguably the most famous French film of all time. On its heels came two financial and critical disasters: A Woman Is A Woman, a comedy/musical Cinemascope extravaganza that left both public and critics confused, and Le Petit Soldat, a political film–Godard called it an “adventure” film–about France’s escalating colonial war in Algeria, which received the coveted honor of being denied both the “visa d’exploitation” and the “vida d’exportation” from the French government’s Minister of Information, meaning it was banned both at home and abroad. During this time, he met and married Anna Karina, who had leading roles in Woman and Soldat, with the pair also famously appearing in Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 as the two silent actors in the film within a film, something that surely appealed to the self-reflexive cineaste in Godard.
But the honeymoon period was short-lived. Godard was psychotically jealous and went so far as to ask Karina to stop acting once they were married, to which she responded by accepting a leading role in a film by Jacques Bourdon, Le Soleil dans l’oeil. On location in Corsica, and growing increasingly estranged from Godard, she fell in love with her co-actor Jacques Perrin and had an affair. Back in Paris, she told Godard about Perrin and that she wanted a divorce. The possessive Godard completely destroyed the furnishings of their apartment and left. Karina attempted suicide, taking an overdose of barbiturates that by all accounts would have killed her had Perrin not unexpectedly broken into the apartment after not hearing from her. While Karina was hospitalized, at a bistro Godard challenged Perrin to dice (a New Wave duel?) and then poker, which was interrupted by a public fistfight with photographers. Both then went to Karina’s bedside. It was through this lens of harmony, and a shaky reconciliation with Anna Karina, that Godard approached his next project, Vivre Sa Vie.
More so than with most directors, it is nearly impossible to separate Godard’s artistic output from his contentious and volatile private life. New Wave scholars have that demarcation line between his marriage to Karina and his growing radicalization in the wake of the 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War. But it is starting here, with Vivre Sa Vie, that both Godard and Karina broke new ground, or at least pushed heavily on its boundaries. Part of the reason that it is hard to differentiate the couple from the film is the personal nature of the work itself. The lead is Nana, an obvious anagram for Anna, and the somber script, based on twelve “tableaux vivants” (or “living paintings”) in the life of a prostitute, is in turns vengeful and empathetic. Whereas in the past Anna Karina was a lead, in Vivre Sa Vie, she becomes the film’s raison d’être, the focus of both Godard’s passion and his hatred.
Technically speaking, Godard had never worked this way before. Sets were static, mics limited, cameras heavy and immobile. Each scene was often comprised of several long takes meticulously set up by Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with few cuts or edits. It was the first film ever to abandon post-synchronized sound, the process where ambient sounds and dialogue are added or embellished in the studio following the shoot. Godard, completely committed to this idea of capturing snapshots of authenticity, wanted all sound recorded on a single track, on the set, which meant even more limits to actor movement and blocking. The song coming from the jukebox must sound like a song coming from a jukebox, and not act as a brief segue into a full-fledged studio recording: it was a strangely philosophical approach to sound that he stuck to religiously throughout the shoot. The camera, although moored, swings pendulously within scenes, often obscuring faces or shooting actors from behind as they speak to one another, as in the extended opening sequence where Nana speaks to her ex at the bar, our only glimpse of their facial expressions cast via the mirror behind the counter.
Despite the liberation inherent in the title, which roughly translates as “to live one’s life”, in the end, this is inescapably a film about Godard and Karina’s demise, a melancholic-if-beautiful exercise in which one often feels the uncomfortable role of psychoanalytic voyeur. Anna Karina puts in one of the best performances of her entire career (her tear-streaked face as she watches Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc remains one of the most famous film stills of all time), and Godard would rarely give such autonomy to a female protagonist again. Despite this being an attempt at drawing them closer, if anything, it seems to have done the exact opposite, as Karina would again attempt suicide before the production was finished and Godard could often be found sleeping on the floor of his producer’s office. Nevertheless, they managed to continue working together, collaborating on such classic projects as Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot Le Fou, before going their separate ways. Today Vivre Sa Vie remains the subtle, understated flashpoint of the brilliance that was to come.