Screening Log #9: Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Having returned to class and being handed the responsibility for a number of students for the first time I have had little time to watch films of late. Thankfully, I was afforded a break tonight and filled it with Jean-Luc Godard‘s Vivre Sa Vie. Having seen several of his other collaborations with Anna Karina and being, admittedly, completely captivated by her beauty and on-screen charisma, I looked forward very much to seeing this film.
What struck me on viewing the film was its focus on the face – specifically on Karina’s face. Godard begins the film by overlaying the credits over three close angles of Karina’s face with three shots: one from each profile and one while she looks directly into the camera. By opening the film in this way Godard signals the manner in which he will utilize the face in the film to examine his interest in the commodification of beauty and the resultant fragmentation that occurs subsequent to this. Aesthetically, Godard makes his influence in this focus on the face known when he shows Nana (Karina) attending a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; Nana openly weeps at the screen and Maria Falconetti‘s enraptured acceptance of her fate, Godard shooting her in a frame that recalls Dreyer’s framing of Falconetti. This reference to Joan of Arc filters through the rest of the film, Nana becoming Godard’s re-framing of Joan’s struggle with a patriarchal power structure cast forward into the streets of 1960′s Paris.
Where Joan’s holy aura rendered her chastity sacrosanct, Nana is forced into a life as a prostitute; her trial is not spiritual but, rather, predicated on physical beauty. Godard juxtaposes the frequent close shots of Nana’s face with blocked shots wherein the face is obscured, by other faces of people talking, or by filming from behind or framing the shot such that the face lies outside what is being recorded. If the face is read as an allegory for self-hood, Godard visually demonstrates the way identity is obscured in conversation or in social settings; upon entering the hotel with her first John, encountered randomly, Nana walks past a mirror in the hall, again visually signalling the fragmentation of her self, the splintering of her identity, as well as the artificiality of the guise she’s donned.
Nana eventually encounters an elderly man in a coffee shop and asks him to buy her a drink, after which the two discuss philosophy, language, communication and love. Nana tells him that “The more one talks, the less words mean” which transcends her direct attack on widespread conversation, stating she would rather live in “silence”, and can be read as her own tacit admission of her profession trivializing her conceptions of sex and love.
Following this Nana is shown in a bedroom as a young man reads from Edgar Allan Poe; the young man reads The Oval Portrait, a story wherein the artist in question is so consumed with accurately capturing the beauty of his wife in a painting that she dies before he finished and, indeed, that he does not even notice until he is finished his work. Here art is seen to mortify the flesh, to preserve beauty at the expense of life; consumed by the beauty of his subject, the artist neglects her to fatal consequences. Nana is moved by this story, perhaps seeing her own situation as trafficking in her own aesthetic beauty as a process of mortifying herself and subsequently decides to attempt to leave her profession.
This Poe story resonates also in the relation of Anna Karina to Godard, as his wife and his muse, certainly ironically making a similar statement on the potential effect of Godard focusing so much artistic effort of immortalizing his wife on screen.
Like Joan of Arc, who transgressed against the role prescribed to her by the patriarchal society, Nana’s effort to leave her profession has unfortunate consequences. Nana attempts to leave her profession she is chastised and sold by her pimp. The deal goes wrong, however, with the purchasers failing to include the total agreed upon sum, a shoot-out ensues and Nana is killed by her pimp after being shot to prevent her from telling anyone what happened. Again, like Joan, Nana is martyred to absolve the sins of the men in her life.
Godard puts forth the notion that what was once a spiritual problem is now a physical problem; in a world that has moved beyond God to celebrate the individual old problems of transgression and repression propagate in similar ways through different mediums. In the 500 years between Joan and Nana things change, but not drastically; in the 35 years between Dreyer and Godard even less changes. It remains an impossibility that art can put forward a commentary on the situation of a woman in the context of a patriarchal society – solely through the agency and masculine eye - without implicating itself. What remains after is the art, the mortifying echo, and the beauty of a body shuffled off in the act of transcending.