REVIEW: ‘Vivre sa vie’ – ‘My Life to Live’ (1962)

Grade: A

The great auteur Jean-Luc Godard was not one to care about pleasing an audience. That theory may never have been more evident than in the opening of Vivre sa vie, one of Godard’s earliest films. The opening credits are played over a profile shot of an expressionless woman. After cuts to three different angles of the woman – left profile, front, and right profile – the film opens on a dramatic scene in which we only see the back of the woman’s head. This stylistic choice was not necessarily Godard’s way of infuriating his audience, but it was his way of pointing a middle finger at French cinematic convention.

As part of the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard was highly critical of the way conventional filmmakers used the camera. In his first film Breathless and with different levels of success in Vivre sa vie, Godard creates an anarchic visual style that departs from the established rules of cinema including the 180 degree rule, eye line match, and continuous editing.

Vivre sa vie is a film in pieces. It is broken up into 12 different “tableaux” or mini-chapters that tell different parts of the story. Each of those 12 different chapters is further broken up by the erratic editing style that Godard employs. He uses jump cuts in the middle of scenes in order to fast forward the narrative to the more interesting aspects. Story is secondary to style in Godard’s work, but everything is executed with a sort of furious grace.

Surprisingly, Godard’s Vivre sa vie is one of the filmmaker’s most story-heavy endeavors. He spends less time directly addressing his philosophy on art and life and instead uses the metaphor of prostitution to present his analysis of industrialized society. A theme that he consistently revisits is prostitution as a metaphor for the evils of capitalism. When people are willing to sell their most precious commodity – their own sexuality – for money, it represents the darkest side of mankind. Godard was an open Marxist and it is evident in his consistent use of the prostitution metaphor.

The story marks the down fall of a French actress expertly portrayed by Anna Karina. Each subsequent tableaux portrays the actress’ transition from career failure to prostitution to inevitable martyrdom. The film intentionally has an episodic feel with each segment having its own style from the dialogue to the editing and visual style. Godard was a student of Brecht and he believed in removing the actor from the role to force the audience to question the “fiction” that is being portrayed on screen. The Brechtian influences are more subtle in Vivre sa vie than in many of Godard’s other films, but they are evident in several scenes including one where the actress repeats herself several times and announces that she wanted to make sure the line sounded right.

Godard’s philosophical message isn’t as blatant in this film as it is in say, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, but it is presented more gracefully. For instance, the prostitute protagonist greets her clients with the same overly simplistic line that she uses to greet a prestigious philosopher – “do you come here often?” Surely someone with the brevity of Jean-Luc Godard could have written a more sophisticated line of dialogue than the oldest come-on in the book, but he purposely uses it as a criticism of language. One of Godard’s criticisms with French cinematic convention is that it relies too heavily on dialogue instead of images to tell story. By stripping away any level of erudition, Godard forces the viewer to notice the films complex subtleties like the pictures on the wall and the food on the table in the scene.

Like so many other Godard films, Vivre sa vie is a glorious tribute to what the French New Wave deemed “good” cinema of the past. Posters are displayed of Humphrey Bogart and Buster Keaton in the background of scenes, part of one scene suddenly becomes a silent film, and there is a glorious movie within a movie scene. The protagonist watches Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc while isolated in a cinema and she tearfully predicts her own martyrdom. Godard may not at the time have realized that he was in the process of creating a similar masterpiece with his work on Vivre sa vie.

Bottom Line: Vivre sa vie is one of my favorite Godard films because it is subtle and sometimes cruel, but never boring.

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  • The only two Godard films I’ve ever heard of are “Breathless” and “Contempt”, and I haven’t seen either. Looks like I may have to, if they’re as good as this one looks.

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