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: