Having dipped my toe into the murky waters of the French New Wave with Breathless last week, I’m now ankle deep but the water is no clearer. I enjoy exploring new cinematic avenues, whether it be silent comedy, Italian horror or Korean thrillers but I’ve never had so much difficulty in expressing myself with the written word as I’m having while trying to compose my thoughts about the films of Jean-Luc Godard. My Life to Live or Vivre sa vie in its original French is a film in twelve chapters about a young Parisian woman who dreams of becoming an actress but is drawn into prostitution when money becomes ever more illusive. Anna Karina, Godard’s then wife, stars in the central role and puts in a mesmerising performance in a film which I struggled to enjoy but couldn’t take my eyes off.
From what little I’ve seen of Godard’s canon, I think it’s fair to say that he’s a director with an eye for beauty. The images he crates are sumptuous and filled with splendour despite the slightly crinkled, low budget style of film making in which he partakes. Breathless was amongst the best looking films I’ve seen while My Life to Live exerts its beauty in a steadier, more measured manner, lingering on beauty rather than allowing it to rush by. At the centre of all this is Anna Karina herself, a woman whose eyes flash at the screen in such a way as to make her audience melt.
The eighty minute film is split into twelve distinct chapters which are numbered and presented with a title card and brief description of what we are about to see. Although the plot is linear, this creates a slight unbalancing of the linear structure by whetting our appetite and teasing what is to come. The descriptions are brief and often quite vague though turn out to be very accurate. The sixth chapter for example begins with an intertitle that reads ‘Yvette - a café in the suburbs - Raoul - machine gun fire’. All four of those people, places and incidents are present in the chapter but it doesn’t give much away. I liked the idea. It worked to break up the story and created a situation by which the audience couldn’t be sure as to how much time had passed between chapters. It could be minutes or months and it is never made clear. All we have to go on is the growth of the central character and changes in her behaviour which hint at either short or long periods.
The film opens on a scene which instantly became one of my favourite openings ever. I absolutely adored its boldness, simplicity and beauty as well as the intrigue it created. The location is a café and Nana (Karina) is talking at the café bar with a man about her dreams of making it as an actress. The scene, which lasts several minutes, is shot entirely from behind the couple who sit side-by-side. Not once do we see their faces. It’s such an interesting and brave decision for the director to make but it works brilliantly. It creates so much anticipation and intrigue while hiding portions of the conversation from us. It also confounds our expectations. The second scene is shot with the actors at a pinball machine, this time with the characters nearly at right angles to the camera. Nana’s face is still partially obscured and we view the conversation voyeuristically from slightly behind her shoulder. It introduces us to our central character slowly, asking us to be patient.
The film as a whole asks for a lot of patience from its audience. It’s a terribly slow piece which often feels like it’s about to grind to a halt. It also lingers on faces, situations and mundane objects much longer than you’d expect and even opens scenes with what looks like a blank canvas before slowly adding characters. The very final scene opens on a quiet street with the camera looking towards a corner. Eventually, after what is probably 25-30 seconds, a car appears around the corner carrying our protagonists. In an establishing shot like this, most directors would allow just a couple of seconds for the car to appear but Godard asks us to wait, building suspense. In an earlier scene we watch as Nana writes a letter, her hand slowly making its way across the page. This is made even slower for those of us without an understanding of French as we have to wait for the subtitles to appear.
Anna Karina is fantastic in the film and her performance is one of the highlights. It’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off her and she occasionally looks at the camera as if you remind you that your gaze is fixed. Her large eyes provide a lot of her physical dialogue and although she doesn’t have the most expressionistic face, there are one or two moments which I thought were incredible. The first is her reaction to watching The Passion of Joan of Arc at the cinema. Her sadness at the film as well as the realisation that she probably won’t ever be an actress is exquisite and later there is the briefest of flashes in her face before it is once again obscured while she is talking to her pimp in a café.
This film appears to go against some of the conventions of La Nouvelle Vague cinema, especially with its use of static, heavy cameras. As I’ve said, I’m certainly no expert but my reading around the movement leads me to expect grittier handheld footage. My Life to Live features mostly slowly tracking or panning or even static shots, filmed with larger cameras and with fairly high quality film stock. I loved the way the camera moved across scenes from a fixed point, following the story as a single human would. Indeed the entire movie felt as though it was being viewed from a single viewpoint, as a voyer, intruding on portions of Nana’s life. Personally I felt that this abrupt style made the plot suffer but I appreciate what Godard was trying to do. A problem this created though was that sometimes we’d see the middle of a conversation or incident and wouldn’t be able to contextualise it with a beginning or conclusion. This gives the feeling of a flawed documentary.
In the end I struggled to really penetrate the film and had some of the same issues as I did with Breathless but there’s no denying its beauty or boldness. There's a great sadness behind this film and Godard successfully portrays the idea that hopes and dreams don't always amount to what you want or expect. It feels ahead of its time in style and substance and while I didn’t enjoy every minute, I enjoyed some moments as much as I have any film.