Vivre sa vie is split novelistically into twelve distinct parts, each detailing Nana’s (Anna Karina) descent into prostitution through economic necessity and what happens after. No other Godard film, to my knowledge, is as committed to realism as this one is, both social and emotional and in terms of form. In some ways then, it can be considered the truest of Godard’s films and the saddest.
Nana is a young woman who harbours ambitions to be an actress. These dreams have not come into being and Nana, dissatisfied, leaves her husband Paul (Andre S. Labarthe) and tries to make it on her own. She has no cash and no one she knows can lend her any money – she has to cadge a cinema ticket of Paul and her landlady locks her out of her apartment. Following an unsuccessful attempt at petty crime, Nana is forced to take up prostitution.
Karina gives her best performance for Godard here, playing a woman who is still young but who knows even at this early stage that she has failed to do what she wants to do with her life. Karina brings out this frustration and disappointment and, after she becomes a prostitute, self-loathing brilliantly. In one scene, Nana rambles about her newfound economic independence and her responsibility for herself, pretending that she is happy, only for her face to suddenly dissolve into silent, choking unhappiness in the instant that she runs out of words. Then she silently watches a couple across the café. These two moments together are amongst the most moving that Godard ever achieved. We do not know what Nana is thinking when she looks at this couple – it could be that she is thinking of her own loneliness, it could be that, since the man seems to be a little cold, that she is thinking about her comfort depends on such taciturn men, showing her feelings of independence as a delusion. What is significant in this moment is that Godard holds back on the tricks and delivers a ‘straight’ moment of performance and drama.
Other parts of the film are more experimental, but the experimentation is muted here in favour of a depiction of the state of prostitution in France and the lot for the women who do it. One part of the film belongs squarely to documentary – Anna questions her pimp Raoul (Sady Rebbot) about the laws and practices of prostitution and he replies coldly and scientifically about how the job works and the laws that need to be followed. It is a dehumanising sequence, displaying how stark the options are for those who do this job. Godard frequently films Karina in close-up in profile and in low light, detailing stages of her descent in her face. This culminates in a scene towards the end of the film in which Godard reads in voiceover Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’ to Nana, a story and the theme of the film about a man who is an artist and the woman he loves. A brief insight into their marriage (on the rocks at this point) and an examination of how the films have got in the way of their love. It is also another example of a woman subjugated by a man. The film concludes then with a stark and sudden, powerfully undramatic sequence detailing Nana’s betrayal by Raoul and her death at the hands of two uncaring men. The film ends with her body on the street, the camera suddenly tilting down, giving Nana an ascension that nevertheless must remain ruthlessly in the gutter.
The battle between Nana’s emotions and the reality of her existence plays out underneath the main current of the film. We see Nana’s trying to overcome her self-disgust – just as we see attempts to live as if nothing is wrong despite the embarrassment of asking friends for money and trying to hide from her landlady. Her moments of happiness are rare and usually tainted. She dances alone to some music in a pool hall and despite her loneliness and the fact that the three men ignore her. We watch her dance, not caring if it’s sad, happy despite everything – and then Godard cuts to her POV – we see now the bare, ugly room, the unpleasantness of her journey and the faces of the men who ignore her. Like the singing scene in Une Femme est une femme, Godard shows the disconnect between how the character feels and where the character is, though here we are left more with the impression of denial rather than irrepressible joy. In another moment, we see her happy with a young man, a man she incidentally picks up at the pool hall. She talks of ending her life as a prostitute and returning to normality and yet we know she won’t be happy. The young man refuses to leave the apartment and prefers to read ‘The Oval Portrait’ to her from a book he has just happened to find. The only time Nana is happy without consequence is, intriguingly, when she goes to the cinema to see Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and experiences a transcendent moment of (self-)recognition.
Vivre sa vie was an experimental film – its direct sound, long takes and lateral, arbitrary but direct camerawork were rarely seen – but here the technique and the form of the film work towards and heighten the film’s tragedy, rather than commenting ironically on it. Vivre sa vie is one of Godard’s most moving and soberest films, one in which it seems that Godard’s primary focus was on his wife’s performance and the plight of the prostitute. It would be foolish to read the film as feminist necessarily, but it does recognise the difficulties of an economically deprived woman who wants to be independent in a man’s world. In one moment, Nana is paid by a client who then wants another woman. Nana gets the woman for him and when she asks what she is to do, she is told to do nothing and just remain seated. Nana sits, immobilised, in low lighting and in profile and when the film’s theme plays, it is a quietly heart-breaking image of a woman in invisible chains.