Saturday, May 21, 2011

Film Review: Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s films, his leading lady (and then-wife) Anna Karina shows an expressive fluidity that rivals the best work of the great silent-film star Louise Brooks. She’s rarely stolid, but one never catches her overacting. Her face and posture offer a steady flow of understated emotions and attitudes, which are often shifting and contradictory. Her performances are a marvel of both subtlety and spontaneity. One is also astonished at how versatile a presence she is in Godard’s films: a voice of moral reason in Le Petit soldat (1960), a figure of charm and delight in A Woman Is a Woman (1961) , and in Vivre sa vie (1962), a figure of pathos and ultimately tragedy.

Karina’s character in Vivre sa vie is Nana, a Parisian in her early twenties. The film is a portrait of her life as a prostitute. In the opening scene, she calmly bids good-bye to Paul (André S. Labarthe), an aspiring musician with whom she had a son, and who raises the boy while still living with his parents. She wants to be an actress, and has gotten a little work on both the stage and in film. But most of her income is from her job as a floor associate in a record store. The money isn’t enough to pay the bills, and one day she finds herself locked out of her apartment because of past-due rent. It isn’t long before she starts turning tricks, first as an amateur streetwalker, and then in the employ of a pimp named Raoul (Sady Rebbot). He puts her to work on both the street and in a brothel.

Godard repeatedly emphasizes how degrading the life of a prostitute is. When Nana turns her first trick, she tries to retain a shred a dignity by refusing to kiss the john on the mouth. But no matter how much she struggles and repeatedly turns her face away, he won’t take no for an answer. There are repeated shots of women lined up along the Paris streets offering themselves; Godard’s use of a car to dolly the camera makes the women seem like cuts of meat under scrutiny in a butcher’s display. Brothel work has a similarly demeaning side. One of Nana’s customers in that setting asks if he can have a threesome instead of a one-on-one. After she goes to a fair amount of trouble to find another available girl, he decides he likes the second girl better, and opts to be serviced by her alone. Nana is left to sit on the edge of the bed, smoking a cigarette while she listens to the john and the other girl have their session.

The film’s epigraph is a quote attributed to Montaigne, “One must lend oneself to others but give oneself to oneself.” Godard obviously intends this as ironic. Nana tries to live that attitude, as can be seen in one bit in which she proudly displays herself to passersby on the street. And it’s probably what’s behind her swaggering, flirtatious dance to a jukebox tune in an almost empty club. But the film makes perfectly clear that Nana doesn’t “give herself to herself”; she ultimately belongs to her pimp. Raoul terrorizes her at one point for refusing a client. His view of her as his property is further emphasized when he tries to sell her for a large sum to another gangster. She’s just a piece of merchandise to these predators. If they can’t make money off her, she’s no more to them than garbage on the street.

Godard’s stylistic trademarks are very much a part of Vivre sa vie. He does a marvelous job of integrating them into the material. No previous filmmaker has done as much to emphasize how much our experiences with the arts reflect and shape our attitudes and lives. When, early in the film, Nana’s landlord locks her out of her apartment, she uses her little remaining money to buy a ticket to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. She cries as she watches the scene in which Joan (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) comes to terms with her doom. Nana’s tears are as much for Joan as for herself. Godard heightens the viewer’s sense of Nana’s identification with Joan by intercutting the close-ups of Falconetti with similarly posed close-ups of Karina. Late in the film, Nana finds a new beau and resolves to give up whoring. She’s spurred by his reading Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” aloud. It’s obvious she transfers her love of the prose’s romantic spirit to her new boyfriend. One also finds Godard’s standard in-jokes, such as a shot of a theater playing fellow nouvelle vague filmmaker François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. I especially liked how Godard adapted his and Karina’s nod to the aforementioned Louise Brooks to the film's purposes. (Brooks played a woman ultimately driven by poverty into prostitution in Pandora’s Box, her most famous film.) Karina’s hair is cut in a manner similar to Brooks’ famous Dutch bob, although it looks like the kind of approximation a working-class woman like Nana would get. The lack of elegance reflects the work of a less-than-expert hairdresser, as well as the growing-out that occurs when one can’t afford to keep the cut maintained. The film also has Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s standard compositional boldness and terrific evocation of urban settings.

The heart of the film, though, is Anna Karina’s superb performance. Every note is hit with close to perfect pitch, and that near-perfection is better than the total thing. Karina evokes the character; she doesn’t call attention to her virtuosity in playing the role. And details such as the occasional awkwardness of her movements in the jukebox-dancing scene seem right for the part. Her best scene is the one in which her future pimp convinces her to work for him. It begins with Nana writing a letter to an out-of-town madam to ask for work in her brothel. Karina conveys Nana’s trepidation with every stroke of the pen on the paper. Nana is interrupted by Raoul, who sees the letter and offers what he says is a better deal. One can see the character caught between her ongoing revulsion at selling herself and her eagerness for a better financial situation. The emotional shifts Karina evokes between a desire to refuse, coyness, ingratiating behavior, and Nana’s eventual wholehearted acceptance of his offer are nothing less than dazzling.

One would be remiss not to applaud Godard for his refusal to be exploitative of Karina in this role. She does no nudity in the film; the most one sees are fleeting glimpses of her underwear as Nana begins to take off her clothes. I especially liked Godard's handling of the montage of Nana with her various customers as she happily embarks on her ultimately tragic time in Raoul’s employ. It’s accompanied by a dry, didactic voiceover that recounts the recent history of prostitution laws in France, the legal dos-and-don’ts for those engaged in the trade, and the women’s specifically feminine medical needs and practices. Godard won't for a moment allow the viewer to get any vicarious enjoyment out of Nana's experiences as a prostitute. There isn’t a prurient moment in the film. Even the threesome scene is handled with a minimum of explicitness; the only explicitly racy bits are the brief shots of Nana’s nude coworkers as she goes around the brothel looking for a girl who isn’t busy.

Vivre sa vie makes no bones about the demeaning nature of prostitution and the desperate circumstances that lead women to it. Prostitution will probably always be with us, and those who think its repugnant side should be disregarded will probably always be with us as well. It’s always good to have a brilliantly realized and level-headed rebuke like Vivre sa vie around. For that reason and more, it's a great film.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Film Review: A Woman Is a Woman

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Angela (Anna Karina), the main character of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 film A Woman Is a Woman, is a young Danish woman living in Paris. She works as a stripper, and she lives with her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who works in a bookstore. Their apartment is in a rundown section of the city; the police may knock on their door while investigating a street crime, and their next-door neighbor is a prostitute who uses her place to service johns. Angela and Émile don’t have much--their apartment is sparsely furnished, and they share the telephone with the prostitute--but Angela wants a baby. And when a home fertility test tells her she’s ovulating, she decides to conceive that day. But Émile won’t accommodate her, so she looks to Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), his best friend.

This rather forlorn little story is the foundation the film is built on, but in many ways it’s just another dissonance that Godard employs toward the film’s real purpose, which is to satirize the conventions of Hollywood musical comedy. Godard constantly highlights the various tropes of the genre. However, he never really gives in to the genre’s most basic requirement, which is to provide a showcase for singing and dancing. Karina is the only one of the three stars who sings--in one scene--and it’s anticlimactic. The music stops when she starts, and Godard doesn’t let her voice dominate the soundtrack. He instead has it recede into the ambient sounds of the location. It’s the same with the dancing. All we get is a half-baked mock striptease during which Karina lifts her skirt and shakes her rear end at the camera. Godard has said the film is “not a musical--it’s the idea of a musical.” He has created a cinematic collage of the genre’s narrative and stylistic conceits. He wants the audience to recognize them as conceits, and to be entertained by the recognition.

Godard uses the seaminess of the story, setting, and characters to satirize the artificial innocuousness of these elements in Hollywood musicals. The grungy aspects of Angela’s life at work and at home point up the extent to which Hollywood bleaches the grit out of its productions. Making Angela a stripper mocks the sexlessness of the standard leading-lady roles in musicals of the time, and there’s an added edge: is there more of a travesty of a musical-comedy diva than a burlesque performer? And speaking of satirizing sexlessness, why else would Angela have to pressure Émile---her live-in boyfriend--to make love to her? It’s an absurdity that’s topped by having him refuse her, and then topped again by his referring her to Alfred.

One can also see Émile’s conduct as a commentary on the often ridiculously contrived behavior of musical-film characters. The principals all have their oddball moments, such as when Émile rides his bicycle around the apartment, or when Angela and Alfred imitate dancer poses from musical-comedy advertising in the street. The most inspiredly silly bit, though, occurs in the scene in which Angela fries an egg. When the phone rings in the building hallway, she flips the egg up so it sticks to the ceiling, and then, after answering the phone, comes back to catch the egg on her plate and eat it. Godard loves the absurdity of such moments, and when he’s not mocking the narrative idiosyncrasies of musicals, he’s parodying their formal stylizations. Examples include the arbitrary stop-and-start use of Michel Legrand’s lush score, the transformation of dialogue--particularly arguments--into ping-pong spoken-word duets, and using the unfurnished quality of Angela and Émile’s apartment to give it a conspicuously stage-set look.

The irony of A Woman Is a Woman is that for all the travestying of musical-comedy conventions, Godard also manages to convey the equivalent of those films’ playfulness and appeal. The key to this is Anna Karina. Here, as in other films, she displays a free-spirited charm that has few rivals in the history of film. Her colorful outfits combine with her attitude to create a unique pop glamour. She looks especially great in the apartment scenes; the sparseness of the location, with its uncluttered white walls, offsets her clothes stunningly. She’s great fun to watch, and no matter how ridiculous her character’s behavior, she always has one rooting for her. My favorite moment of her is the film’s final scene. Angela and Émile lay in bed after reconciling, and he says to her, “Tu es infâme.” She replies, “Non, je suis une femme.” Her delight in delivering that sassy pun has one grinning from ear to ear. Godard married Karina shortly after production wrapped. Is anyone surprised?

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Comics Review: Lucille, Ludovic Debeurme

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This expansive graphic novel about a teenage love affair is an astonishingly executed piece of cartooning.

Ludovic Debeurme is a master cartoon dramatist. In his 2006 graphic novel Lucille, just published in English, he works wonders with a minimalist approach. From a North American perspective, it’s as if he combined the most eloquent aspects of the styles of Chester Brown and John Porcellino. His drawing captures highly specific locales, forceful action, and complex character attitudes with so little fuss that it seems all but miraculous. His visual skill makes this love story between two teenage misfits one of the more vividly realized comics in recent memory.

A more apt title for Lucille would probably be Lucille and Vladimir, as the story is about them both, and neither takes precedence over the other. Lucille is 16 when the story opens, and one immediately sees that she’s plagued with serious self-esteem problems: her classmates treat her callously, boys don’t find her attractive, and her home life offers no edification. She lives alone with her mother, and her mother works night shifts, so the two hardly ever see each other. Her insecurities ultimately manifest themselves as anorexia, which leads to repeated hospitalizations. The hospital is where she first meets Vladimir, a local working-class boy. He’s almost as dejected as she is. His home was never a happy one while growing up, and a family tragedy has resulted in his having to work to support them. When the two meet again after Lucille has returned home, they fall in love. It’s not long before they resolve to run away together. They leave France for Italy, and the second half of the book follows them as their relationship deepens, and they try to build a new life for themselves.

Debeurme's guiding principle seems to be wanting the reader to understand what he shows as fully as possible. Actually, the word “understand” isn’t adequate; he wants the reader to feel everything in the most intense terms. The panel breakdowns are as decompressed as one will find in any manga. It’s the most effective way to create lifelike rhythms on the page. (Lucille runs over 500 pages.) And Debeurme is extraordinarily deft in his manipulation of those rhythms: even with the minimal drawings, he can evoke scenes as diverse as conversations, a bar fight, or a fishing boat caught in a storm as naturalistically as any film director. Debeurme’s interest in maximizing the reader’s feelings of proximity to the story is also reflected in his decision to spend half the book setting up Lucille and Vladimir’s characters before bringing them together. When the story moves to Italy, one doesn’t just see how their anxieties create tensions in their relationship; the reader is on such intimate terms with the two that one feels those tensions along with them.

As affecting as it is, though, Lucille isn’t a particularly profound work. It doesn’t have the conceptual strength of the better efforts in fiction and film, or the very best work in comics. There isn’t really a dynamics of meaning in the story; one’s view of what has come before isn’t really challenged over the course of the reading. Debeurme doesn’t create ambiguities or build conflicts into a higher synthesis, so the material never rises above the level of melodrama. However, while Lucille may not be as rich a work as one may hope, one notes that it is still a very satisfying one. Ludovic Debuerme is a brilliant and conscientious stylist, and that’s quite impressive in its own right.