Vivre Sa Vie Review
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 film, Vivre Sa Vie is placed at an interesting point in the director’s career and is certainly one of his most likeable, most accessible and most enjoyable films. It stars Godard’s then wife and regular star of his films, Anna Karina, and she is at her most charming and most beautiful in this Nouvelle Vague flit through 12 scenes that show a young woman’s misguided attempt to assert control over her own life, away from the influence of the men in her life.
Nana (Karina), has just broken-up with her boyfriend and left him with their child. She works in a record shop and has ambitions to be an actress in the movies, but she doesn’t have the financial means to get the all-important portfolio of photographs she needs to get herself introduced – she doesn’t even have the 2,000F she needs to pay her rent. Her life is changed after a couple of incidents. One is where she goes to the cinema, where she sees Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the other is over an incident on the street where she tries to pick up a 1,000F note dropped by a passer-by. Eventually forced out onto the street, Nana accepts the cards life has dealt her and deals with it on her own terms, entering into a life of prostitution.
Vivre Sa Vie (My Life To Live) is a quintessential French New Wave film – showing young people living everyday lives, seeking to discover their place in the world, philosophising while smoking Gitanes, playing pinball and records on jukeboxes in Parisian cafés. Like Joan of Arc, Nana decides not to decry her fate or put it into the hands of others. Just as Joan accepts what must happen to her as a necessary consequence of who she is and what must be, Nana accepts responsibility for the direction her life takes. It’s clear however that she is similarly not really free from the influence and control of the various men in her life, and she probably knows this. By the time she works out what she wants, she is unable to change the other controlling factors and the realities of being a prostitute. Karina is stunning in this film and full of quirky charm. Watch how she measures her height in one scene and then watch her dance around a billiard table to a song on the jukebox and tell me you haven’t fallen in love with her. If you can avoid reading the subtitles, just watch her looks and reactions, particularly when someone is speaking to her. She’s not Falconetti in Joan of Arc by any means, but it’s delightful to see her so completely caught up in this character throughout the film.
Although Godard does present the viewer with some of the realities of being a prostitute on the streets of Paris, it is more often in the manner of a factual spoken, voice-over between characters. Vivre Sa Vie is far from grim social realism and although Godard would return to the subject of prostitution in Paris in a more realistic way in 1967's Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, he doesn’t entirely romanticise Nana’s situation here – the inference is clear, that as much as she thinks she controls her own life (and hence the film’s title), a woman still must do so under the terms and the social order dictated by males. Godard doesn’t labour the political or social aspects of the film, focussing more on the act of making a film itself, developing and refining a style, making references and including sequences of music, literature, film and philosophy in a way that is meaningful and relevant, and in doing so he created one of his most dazzling and delightful films.
Although the labelling on the disc itself claims the DVD to be Region 0, the Nouveaux Pictures’ UK release of Vivre Sa Vie is actually Region 2 encoded. It is released alongside two other Godard titles - Masculin Féminin (1966) and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). The film was recently released on DVD in France by Arte as a 2-disc set, including a 45-min examination of the film by Jean Narboni, an 45-minute interview by Mathieu Amalric and three Godard short films, introduced by Noël Simsolo – all unfortunately unsubtitled. Sadly, none of these extra features have made it over to the Nouveaux UK release.
Vivre Sa Vie comes with a beautifully restored black and white transfer of the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a superb range of black and white tones, a reasonable level of detail, scarcely any grain and an overall clear, stable image. Any problems with the print are minor – a few minor dust speckles which can only be seen in one or two scenes if you look very closely indeed – and some slight fading down the left-hand of the frame, which makes the image look slightly softer on one side (see screenshot below). I suspect there is little that can be done about this and it is down to the original materials. The transfer itself has similarly very minor issues – a slight breaking-up of vertical lines, perhaps a consequence of some artificial enhancement of edges, which appear overly sharp in some scenes. Overall though the image, with Raoul Coutard’s beautiful photography, looks magnificent here.
The audio track is surprisingly clear here, considering the age of the material. There is very little background hiss and only a couple of pops. Dialogue comes across clearly at all times and retains a good dynamic range, within the limitations of the original soundtrack.
The subtitles are fixed, but player generated and not burnt-into the print or transfer – they disappear if the film is run through in fast-forward mode – so some players may be able to override them. There are a few quirks on the translation, but it is generally fine. An example of the subtitles is included below.
The only extra feature on the disc is a Photo Gallery, which has nothing more than 10 screen captures from the film. The DVD also comes with a thick 60-page booklet – the same booklet is available in each of the three Godard films released by Nouveaux - Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Masculin Féminin (1966) and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). It contains a brief biography of the director, a short introduction to each of the films, a complete filmography and reprints dialogue from a couple of key scenes from each of the three films. Nothing particularly essential, but the scene between Nana and the Philosopher is worth considering in written form.
Vivre Sa Vie may not be one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most important films, but it’s a delightful little film nonetheless with beautiful photography and a charming central performance from Anna Karina. As the film is unencumbered by the political baggage and auto-critical deconstruction of film techniques that would appear in his later works and there are relatively few stylistic eccentricities here, I’d recommend this film as an accessible entrance-point into one of the most innovative directors in modern cinema. The DVD presents the film exceptionally well, although the lack of any substantial supporting features is somewhat disappointing.