Vivre Sa Vie (1963)

D: Jean-Luc Godard
S: Anna Karina, Saddy Rebbot

A single-minded young girl seeking independence finds herself turning to prostitution. Semi-improvised, twelve-chapter drama from Jean-Luc Godard shot on a minimal budget in a very short period of time, beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard on authentic locations. Thought-provoking, probing, and socially relevant even today, the film is never less than interesting, though how much you enjoy it may depend on your predisposition to Godard's highly self-conscious craftsmanship and sense of cinematic artifice.

The film charts the inevitable destiny of a woman who wants control of her own life (the film is sometimes known in English as "My Life to Live"), a path to greater and greater levels of manipulation by men until she is ultimately reduced to a commodity in a trade between two pimps and shot during the transaction. The ending should some as no surprise to perceptive viewers, who will have noticed Godard's constant allusion to images of martyrdom and/or death throughout. The play on the theme of the paradox of free will vs. social predetermination finds expression early on in a reference to Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and is repeated again throughout with reference to various literary sources as well as the more general theme of the role and place of women in contemporary society. That Anna Karina is then offered as a martyr to female liberation in the face of patriarchy should come as no surprise.

Part of the difficulty with the film is its aesthetic and thematic intensity. Despite the detail with which it has been assembled (out of improvisational raw material, admittedly), it is characteristically aloof and cerebral. It eschews emotion with distaste in a Brechtian homage to distantiation and intellect which denies film its power to engage with human beings on a human level. This turns it into too much of a lecture for its own good, and though it is an interesting one, it only works if you're able to understand why it has been made the way it has.

Godard amuses himself by playing with the conventions of cinematic representation. He inverts and/or redefines traditional compositions and editing rhythms to keep the audience constantly on edge. From montage sequences in which tricks blend into one imagistic impression of the prostitute's life to long takes in which characters drift in and out of frame, there is that sense of the cinema which made A Bout de Souffle so infectious, even if the tone is decidedly darker in this case. Coutard's crisp photography brings out every nuance of this directorial bent, and also makes the most of Karina's cold beauty.

As Godard's then wife, Karina is the obvious target of much visual adoration (comparing her with Maria Falconetti is a particularly outrageous gesture). The director is not unaware of the irony of manipulating the image of his beloved to make statements about the male manipulation of women, and he informs us of this by using an Edgar Allan Poe story as a moral pointer towards the end. For her part, the actress carries the centre of the drama quite well, though again more in terms of the symbolic martyr than as a believable character (which might be more interesting to you, depending on your point of view).

Vivre Sa Vie is a rich, complex, and detailed work of cinematic art which is worth watching and bears closer analysis and study. For casual viewers there is little enough to recommend other than the cinematography and elements of Karina's look and characterisation which would later resurface in Pulp Fiction. Your reaction to the film will depend on your disposition towards art cinema in general and Godard in particular. If either or both are to your taste, then you will overlook its lack of human compassion. If you'd prefer things to be a little more visceral, Ken Russell's much later Whore tackles similar subject matter with more gusto and less refinement, but reaches curiously similar conclusions.

Note: The Region 1 DVD of Vivre Sa Vie showcases Coutard's ravishing lensing, but offers little in the way of extras other than filmographies.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.