Saturday, March 11, 2017

Jean-Luc Godard | Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live: A Film in Twelve Scenes)

on the move
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Luc Godard and Marcel Sacotte (writers), Jean-Luc Godard (director) Vivre sa vie : film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live: A Film in Twelve Scenes) / 1962, USA 1963
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 film comes as a kind of shock. Like many of Godard’s early works, it begins and even continues in a fairly playful manner, particularly given the light touch of its young star, Anna Karina, who seems, at first, to be a breezy independent, alternating in a very early scene between a discussion of her relationship with the waiter and her former husband (André Labarthe), she and  her husband sitting at the counter with their back to the audience, while the waiter rushes to and fro, with hardly a moment’s pause to let us see his face. Indeed throughout much of Godard’s work, we see more of what is going on outside the frame of action than within. Out there, on the street, things seem to be proceeding quite charmingly, whereas within, everything is in turmoil.

The film, divided into 12 tableaux, badly translated as “scenes” in the English, present just what the French suggests, artificed moments which capture the “idea” of the world instead of its reality. Indeed Nana, the major figure (calling up Zola’s Nana), who wants to be an actor, is told time again by the men around her that she  is playing at living, making up a world without any reality. The men at the café counter certainly believe she is creating a pose, and later, an elderly wise philosopher (Brice Parain) explains to her that her inability to cogently talk is an attempt to escape reality, which is what language, which defines truth, is all about. 
       If nothing else, Nana is in constant denial. She believes she is “living her life” the way she has chosen, without being controlled by outside forces. But, in fact,  her inability to make any money has already in the early scenes forced her out of her apartment onto the streets.

       At first, Godard simply presents this as happenstance. A couple of one-night stands (for which Nana does not even know how much to charge) will right her condition, and with her meager wages from the record store in which she works, she’ll be able to make do. But interestingly enough, the shop has hardly any of the titles the customer demands, and the shop-clerks demands will be, we perceive, equally unmet. Still, the movie seems to be going down the path of Breathless and other early Godard films, where the heroine survives, despite the men surrounding her. 
       Gradually, however, we begin to perceive that Nana is committed to become
 a streetwalker, and after she meets up again with an old friend, who herself was a surviving whore, we recognize that the beautiful young, Louise Brooks-style femme fatale, Nana, has no intention of giving up the world’s most ancient profession. 
       The director never truly reveals any of the real horrors of what a life of prostitution entails. Most of her clients seem to be fairly handsome young men, a few well-groomed elderly men among them. And she plays the sexual role as if she were enacting a movie with the noted Eddie Constantine, with whom she acted, so she repeats time and again, as a minor in the one movie in which she previously appeared.

        Before long she has acquired a knowledgeable pimp, Raoul (Sady Rebbot), who gives her the details she needs to become a successful and, like Zola’s Nana, transforms her into a high class prostitute. The costs for her services vary: full undress costs more than partial clothing, an entire night obviously costs more, and sex with two women is all about negotiation.

       That Godard keeps such shady dealings so light has, in part, to do with Karina’s lightness of spirit and with the fact that the director slaters on large doses of literature (Baudelaire, Poe, the Socratic dialogues, etc.), film (Renoir, Bresson, Truffaut, and Fuller), and jazz. He makes us feel at home with the world outside the windows, the exciting Paris of 1962 filled with aspiring young poets, filmmakers and composers. How can even this destitute prostitute, Nana, truly suffer in a world as filled as promise as it appears to be: a world of people on the move.
       And why can’t she “find her way,” an important Godardian metaphor in this work, into pictures or, at the very least, into a more substantive career? Might not her own tears be those of the women on the screen such as the memorable unknown, Florence Delay (who played Joan of Arc in Bresson’s memorable film)?

       But in the true world of prostitution, the women have no say. As the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi and even this film has subliminally told us, the abused women have no voices, their dreams and ambitions are simply to be ignored by both pimps and clients. Suddenly, Nana is being shoved into a car, driven to a point of trade by pimps for a financial gain that neither she nor we can truly comprehend. When Raoul feels he has been underpaid, a B-movie (the film is devoted to B-films) shoot-out follows, with the light-hearted Nana being shot down, first by the new pimp and then by Raoul himself. The beautiful, free-spirited woman, shockingly, is now forever left, quite literally, on the street.  La comedia est finita.  

Los Angeles, March 11, 2017

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