Having already watched two Jean-Luc Godard films, Au Bout de Souffle et Pierrot le Fou, I already knew that Vivre sa Vie was going to be special. No Google search or Hulu synopsis can clearly represent the story of the film or capture its tone (this probably won’t either).
The very first frame of Vivre sa Vie is engulfed by our protagonist Nana, wonderfully played by Anna Karina, showing a side profile of her face automatically included with a gloomy score. The music begins to fade, and we gaze at her profile for what seems like decades. Now the camera shifts showing us the front of Nana’s face and the music returns. She gazes ahead past the camera, past whatever may be in front of her and breaks right through the barrier which separates film and reality and looks right at us, the audience. The camera shifts once more, continuing to show us Nana’s face similar to how it’d appear as a mug shot, and the screen cuts to black. It’s a Godard film so I expected a connection between film and film watcher, but having this happen in the opening sequences revealed that Vivre sa Vie was going to be a much more personal experience than Au Bout de Souffle et Pierrot Le Fou were, and indeed it was.
Nana is a poor Parisian who loves cinema and aspires to be an actress someday. A friend of hers, a photographer, tells her that she can submit photos of herself into a catalog where filmmakers can judge and select actresses. Early on in the story she leaves her aspirations of cinema behind and spirals into the world of prostitution in order to support herself financially.
But Vivre sa Vie is directed in a way which seems as if Nana is aware that she is in a film. She frequently glances at the screen, gazing at the viewers at random moments for awkwardly long periods of times.
It’s all very paradoxical. Nana wishes to be an actress, in her world she evidently isn’t but she is somehow aware that she may be in a film. So it all left me with a question. Similar to how Nana’s friend tells her of the catalog where filmmakers judge and select their actresses, was I, the viewer, forced to judge Nana and her character down her dark descent into prostitution? With very little certainty, I want to say yes, indeed I was. I only knew Nana for 93 minutes, but the culmination of the steady long takes, the stares that emotionally connected me with her and the Godard’s directing style made me feel as if I known Nana for a lifetime.
But I wasn’t aware that I may have been some sort of distant observer forced to decide what I thought about Nana. The directing, at first, was quite confusing to me. The entire film is predominately made up of steady long takes focusing on the main subject, Nana. But other times there were some pans like so.
This is a moment in the film, one of few, where Nana is not included. The camera pans from right to left down the street looking for something. It moves in a fashion similar to how a person seeking a prostitute on the side of the road would. It then cuts to a solemn Nana walking along the road.
I wasn’t aware of why the film was directed in such a manner, which I may add is brilliant, until the very last moments. Similar to how I reacted after completing Godard films, I put my laptop aside, reflected and instantly wrote this post whilst replaying the entire movie in 1/2 a window. Vivre sa Vie is just one of those films that needs to be watched and re-watched to truly grasp the content, tone, themes and perhaps hidden messages. For the time being I’ll let it rest in my mind and encourage movie lovers (perhaps that’s you) to go and watch this masterpiece.
Vivre sa Vie is currently available to stream on Hulu’s Criterion Collection.