The folks at Criterion sure do love themselves some Jean-Luc Godard, and with their 11th release from the French New Wave grand master, audiences are treated to Godard’s fourth film, the enchanting and moving Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live). Starring Godard’s muse and wife at the time, Anna Karina, Vivre sa vie documents the life of a Parisian woman who descends into prostitution, but finds herself opened up to a new way of experiencing life.
Four films into a cinema-altering career, Godard was continuing to push the boundaries of what film could accomplish, but Vivre sa vie also serves as a stirring counterexample to many frequent and often misguided criticisms of his work. The label of “pretentious” can cast Godard as some kind of sadist — a calculating filmmaker who makes detached decisions about his work simply to achieve something different. While Godard certainly alienates his audience intentionally in many of his films, he’s far more playful than many give him credit for, and Vivre sa vie reveals that Godard around almost every corner.
Divided into 12 tableaux, Vivre sa vie gives us glimpses into the life of Nana (Karina). She aspires to be an actress, but she’s stuck working in a record store. She’s bored with her marriage. Eventually, she simply slides into a life of prostitution, then heads into it full force.
Godard plays with our expectations about how a story like this is told — most obviously, the temporal gaps afforded by the discrete segments skew the linear aspect of the story, although it retains a fairly distinct narrative. The camera of frequent Godard collaborator Raoul Coutard often sways along with the characters, but occasionally takes a maddening position, as in the opening scene, where Nana and her husband have a conversation entirely with backs turned toward the camera.
Still, it’s not the jump-cut editing (not nearly as pronounced as Breathless, synonymous with the edit itself) or the deliberate cinematic subversion that stands out about Vivre sa vie so much as its expressive loveliness, embodied in the visage of Karina. An early scene takes Nana to the movie theater, where she solemnly takes in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in a pitch-black auditorium. Her tear-stained face is a beacon in the darkness, lovingly framed by a smitten Godard.
Then there’s the scene in a pimp-filled pool hall, where Nana, in a moment of overwhelming joy, struts around the room, camera in tow. One forgets for a moment that the film is suffused with tragedy — Dreyer’s camera angles that force the defeated Maria Falconetti into a corner are echoed as Nana finds herself enveloped in a hooker’s world.
Vivre sa vie is never moralizing, but its basis in hard fact — Marcel Sacotte’s exposé La Prostitution — provides a soberness, seen especially in a brilliantly ironic segment that features voiceover narration from the book itself, contrasting sharply with any vestige of fantasy life that could be seen onscreen.
The inevitable conclusion of the film explodes in a bit of classic Godard B-movie homage, but Vivre sa vie is hardly a pastiche. It’s one of his most original and warmest works, a simultaneous celebration of and philosophical rumination on life.
The Blu-ray Disc
Vivre sa vie is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This is an astonishing high definition release from Criterion — perhaps the most faithfully film-like of any Blu-ray they’ve put out thus far. One feels as if they truly are viewing the film on actual film, with its tight and consistent grain structure and beautifully realized contrast levels. The scene in the movie theater shows impeccable delineation between the black of the theater and the pale whiteness of Karina’s face. The Passion of Joan of Arc stuns too in its short appearance — one can eagerly hope for an impending Blu-ray release of that landmark film.
The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is virtually free from distraction, with clean and clear dialogue and diegetic music. The film is notable for featuring a soundtrack that was directly recorded on set, and not dubbed in later — a practice virtually unheard of at the time — and the mix here reproduces that natural feel.
We get a decent selection of supplements on the disc, the most notable being an interview with scholar Jean Narboni, who discusses a number of aspects of the Godardian style, punctuated by long segments from the film. An audio commentary by Adrian Martin takes a similar tack in approaching the film.
Shorter extras include a 1962 TV interview with Karina, in which the interviewer heads straight for the personal dirt and gets some candid responses about Karina’s abrupt entry into the world of cinema and the life of Godard, and excerpts from a French program on prostitution. Also included are images from the book Godard was inspired by and stills from the set, as well as Godard’s charming theatrical trailer for the film.
A booklet includes Godard’s original scenario, an essay by Michael Atkinson, two interviews with Godard, and a short piece on the film’s unorthodox soundtrack.
The Bottom Line
Vivre sa vie is an essential piece of the French New Wave, of Godard’s filmography and of the world of cinema. Criterion’s Blu-ray is revelatory.