April 23, 2010

Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live)

Reviewer: Jeffrey Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****

In some circles, Jean-Luc Godard is considered the greatest living filmmaker in the world, perhaps even the greatest filmmaker in the world, living or dead. But in other circles, he's not considered at all. He's a ridiculously active filmmaker, making a legendary 15 films between 1959 and 1967, and going strong today. Yet his films are rarely distributed in the United States. There have been two in the last ten years, In Praise of Love >(2001) and Notre Musique (2002), both of which garnered some ecstatic reviews, and went on to earn a few hundred thousand dollars. Even those who saw them probably emerged with the nagging feeling that we hadn't quite got everything.

Andrew Sarris had the same feeling back in 1963, when he reviewed Vivre sa vie (a.k.a. My Life to Live). Sarris first complained that Godard had made five films in France, but Vivre sa vie was only the second to open in the United States. (The first was À bout de souffle, otherwise known as Breathless, Godard's feature debut and still his most famous film.) Then he went on to mention that he hadn't quite got the newer film, but that Godard's films tend to age well and reward multiple viewings. It was a prophetic review, as Vivre sa vie has indeed aged well and rewarded the persistent, stacking up well against Godard's greatest masterpieces.

Vivre sa vie takes place in 12 "chapters," each with its own heading. It's one of Godard's most classical-looking films, with more deliberate, crystalline framing and even something resembling a narrative drive (as opposed to the frenetic Breathless). It's probably also his most literary film, although a title card says that it is dedicated to "B-movies."

Godard's then-wife Anna Karina stars in the second of their eight films together (or 7-1/2 if you count that one of them was a segment in an anthology film). Many have mused about the remarkable way Godard's camera gazes at her, not counting the famous opening sequence that shows a conversation between the back of her head and the back of a man's head. "This is our own story, an artist painting the portrait of his wife," Godard's voice reads offscreen from Poe in a later scene. Perhaps, though, this film signaled the beginning of the end of their relationship (they divorced in 1967). One of the themes of the film is the struggle between freedom and imprisonment of the body and the soul, and the continuing search for balance between them.

Karina plays Nana (with a Louise Brooks haircut), a Paris shopgirl working in a record store and unable to make ends meet. She has plenty of men and male admirers in her life, but none of them actually helps until a man propositions her in the street and she says "yes." Before long, she has a "pimp," Raoul (Sady Rebbot), and is making lots of money. There's a famous sequence in which she asks a series of questions about prostitution, and she gets her answers, dry and factual.

Others have speculated that Godard makes essay films rather than anything as easily defined as a fiction film or a documentary. His works are filled with filmic and literary (and sometimes political) references, and these always seem to be tied together -- or at least reflected -- in some meaningful way. His films give the impression that everything has been considered and thought out, and if we in the audience haven't picked it up, then it's our fault. Godard's are the rare films that assume the entire audience can follow along, rather than pandering to the slowest in the room.

The Criterion Collection has released the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in a glorious new transfer that thankfully replaces the old 1998 Fox Lorber edition. Film scholar Adrian Martin provides a commentary track and critic Michael Atkinson takes on the liner notes essay. We also get an interview with film scholar Jean Narboni, a 1962 TV interview with Karina, excerpts from a 1961 French television exposé on prostitution, and an essay on the book that inspired the film.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by cphillips at April 23, 2010 10:44 AM

And some of us, Jeffrey, have the nagging feeling that there is not that much to "get," save pretension, cheap-jack philosophizing, and cutesy-ness beyond repair. The latter is exemplified via Ms Karina's measuring herself literally by hand because, well, it's just so gosh darned adorable you could puke. Like anyone -- ANYONE! -- could have reached her age without knowing how tall she is? Please.

I suppose I would not react this way were not M. Godard given such knee-jerk obeisance when he is surely the single most over-rated director in the fucking world! Having said that, I did rather enjoy Une femme mariée a second time, Le Petite Soldat is actually pretty good, and Vivre sa vie has its moments. But this guy is five stars like I am four-feet-two.

Godard took film in a new direction and is to be commended on making us work harder and view things from a different perspective. But this is NOT the same thing as being able to make a consistent, engrossing, even sensible motion picture. (He is also among the most humorless of directors. Pierrot le fou is like fingernail across a blackboard.)

Posted by: James van Maanen at April 26, 2010 10:59 AM

Food for thought, James, and of course one's mileage may vary (greatly) when it comes to Godard. I will say I think categorizing him as humorless en total is a mite unfair, or at least we should look at early Godard vs. later, more seriously Marxist Godard. There is much humor and playfulness to be had in Breathless (in the filmmaking + editing itself) and especially in my favorite Godard, Band of Outsiders. Still, I certainly find some of his work, particularly middle period films, to be often rather insufferable. I'd just caution against sweeping all his films under one umbrella (of Cherbourg).


Posted by: Craig P at April 26, 2010 12:06 PM

Very good, Craig (and I am sure M. Godard would not appreciate being under THAT umbrella)! It is perhaps G's brand of playfulness that most rubs me the wrong way. But, hey, I do keep watching (again) and trying (some more). I happened to have just watched for the second time Vivre sa vie when I came upon Jeffrey's review, so I was probably primed for hunting opossum.

Posted by: James van Maanen at April 26, 2010 4:54 PM

LOL @ James' comment "But this guy is five stars like I am four-feet-two." James I am so glad you chimed in with those comments. I thought I was all alone in my thinking Godard's movies were heady without being amusing. And Craig, thanks for the recommendations!

Posted by: Maian at April 27, 2010 10:11 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?