Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film, Vivre Sa Vie (1962), is a character study manifested in a twelve part tableaux. Anna Karina (Godard’s then wife and muse) plays the lead, Nana, a would be actress who falls into prostitution out of economic necessity. The twelve-part structure of Vivre Sa Vie negates the linear trappings of Breathless (1960) as much as it relies on them. The specificity of each of the twelve parts is indicative of an over arching narrative journey, though that convention is quietly relegated to the background. Godard prefers to foreground Nana, her experiences, conversations, and her actions, allowing her narrative journey to work as a means by which her character can be explored. That said, Godard’s primary concern is one of intimacy, not familiarity. In this way Godard can navigate around the clichés and expectations associated with character studies, preferring to allow Anna Karina to assemble her character more organically.
The intimacy of Vivre Sa Vie extends beyond the originality of the film’s construction and into the behind the scenes world of the film production. Nana is in almost every frame of the film, which is to say Anna Karina is in every frame of the film. Often she is photographed interacting with other characters whose faces are obscured while hers remains visible. Constantly Raoul Coutard’s camera fixes upon Nana’s face, documenting all of her expressions and movements with precise detail. But Nana is Anna, Godard’s wife and muse. So as much as the framing of the film adherer’s to a rigorous style meant to amplify the character study of Nana, Vivre Sa Vie is simultaneously one man’s document of his wife. That is to say, Godard becomes all of the men who try to unravel Nana, just as Nana (Anna) is always trying to conceal herself from these men (Godard). Of all the films Godard made with Karina, she has never been more at the center.
As a character study Vivre Sa Vie recalls two silent films with similar themes. The morality of Montaigne’s quote at the film’s outset, “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” becomes explicitly tied to the two most vital components of the film. The first is demonstrated by Godard’s incorporation of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928). Nana’s journey to becoming an actress literally involves “giving” herself to others sexually. However, Nana has remained dedicated to her ambitions, and arguably has given herself to herself first and foremost. Nana’s journey through prostitution is a course that she believes will one day lead to the fulfilling of her ambitions. This of course is a perverted interpretation of Joan Of Arc’s martyrdom, of which both Nana and Godard are aware as evidenced by the tears that can be seen running down Nana’s face as she watches Dreyer’s film in a darkened cinema. The plot points that subtly transpire in Godard’s tableaux even more directly recall G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). Not only is Karina made up to resemble Louise Brooks, but each film charts a woman’s decent into prostitution and ends with that character being killed. Both Pabst and Godard described their films as character studies, each had cast his muse in the lead role, and each pursued a kind of meditation on that muse in each respective film.
Godard’s references to silent film is not exclusive to the content of the fiction in Vivre Sa Vie, but also technically where it concerns the film’s score. The music Michel Legrand has contributed to the film is used only sparsely as a self-aware and overtly dramatic punctuation. The remainder of the film’s sound and music is restricted to being diegetic. When Legrand’s score is heard the urgency and poignancy of the music has the same effect as those one hears accompanying silent films.
The other dominant filmic references made in Vivre Sa Vie are linked to “B-Movies”, to which Godard has dedicated his film. The casual and therefore natural attitudes prostitutes and pimps have toward their profession are stylistically derived from Samuel Fuller’s work, such as Pick-Up On South Street (1953). The ending of the film (when placed in the over arching narrative context recalls Pandora’s Box) in it’s physical execution (the manner in which Nana is killed) refers to not just the violence in Fuller’s crime dramas, but also Edgar G. Ulmer’s.
The aesthetic fusion of silent films and “B-films” is not meant to attest to Godard’s film critic credentials or expertise, but to codify the film in a manner that spares the character Nana. Audiences are familiar, on a subconscious level, with the signifiers Godard has implemented from both genres. Godard carefully employs these signifiers so that the audience can form a coherent whole out of Vivre Sa Vie’s twelve parts. But Godard cannot allow any of these stylistic signifiers to originate with the personality of Nana. Nana must grow and reveal herself organically, as if she were a “real” person existing in a “movie world” if she is to be endowed with any sort of credibility.
This question of credibility extends to all the characters with whom Nana interacts, or at least to the context in which she interacts with them. To do this, Godard permits most of the supporting characters to only appear once. None of the characters in the record shop recur except Nana. Their importance to her, and therefore to Vivre Sa Vie, is limited to how long it takes Godard to convey the nature of her employment there during one part of the tableaux. But just as these supporting players are meaningless in the bigger context of Nana’s life, so is she in there’s. The shot of Nana in a café seated in front of a giant poster of the Champs Elysees articulates this relationship, as well as it draws our attention to the fact that such a perspective (the perspective of a character study) is artificial. Nana is not to scale with the Champs Elysees, just as the meaning of her life is only significant while we watch Vivre Sa Vie and convince ourselves that it is “real”.
By drawing the audience’s attention to the inherent artifice of the character study Godard also questions that artifice. If Nana is not to scale, then it is a problem of perspective. Consider how one lives one’s life, how it appears to one’s self as if you are the star of your own character study. The artifice of the character study is that it is not introspective.
The availability and familiarity of Nana’s journey as well as the popularity of the genres which Godard recalls make Vivre Sa Vie his first masterpiece. Though it is not as often cited as Breathless, I would argue Vivre Sa Vie does more for the audience and for the cinema than any of his three films that came before.