film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

Well, this is more like it. Like other French “New Wave” films, this does play with the conventions of filmmaking a bit, but it does so in ways that don’t bore the pants off me.

Actress Anna Karina stars as “Nana”, a very young French woman who gets bored with her marriage and leaves her husband with vague plans to become a movie star, but ultimately ends up a prostitute instead, with tragic results. A more straightforward Hollywood approach would likely have been heavy-handed with the moralizing and would have presented Nana’s downfall in lurid detail. But here, director Jean-Luc Godard tells the story through a series of twelve short vignettes – Nana’s initial breakup conversation with her husband, a dull day at the record store where Nana first gets work, Nana’s first conversation with Raoul (Sady Rebbot) who ends up as her pimp, a “typical” day in the brothel, Nana getting moved to tears watching a silent film.

Godard sets up his shots in an unusual way as well – during Nana’s entire breakup conversation with her husband, both are sitting at the counter in a bar – and with their backs to us. We only see their faces reflected in the mirror opposite them, sort of. It feels as if we’re eavesdropping on the whole thing – and much of the rest of the film is shot this way, with cameras sometimes panning away from Nana to take in the rest of the room, lingering on other people if they start doing something interesting before finding Nana again. In one sequence, what we hear is Raoul and Nana having a nuts-and-bolts talk about how her new job works – and what we see is a parade of shots of Nana with different men – buttoning up their pants, handing her money, or nervously following her into rooms as Nana closes drapes or lights cigarettes for them, or in one shot, lets them kiss her neck as she smokes herself, looking bored out of her mind. We are only shown glimpses of Nana’s life – but they’re so vivid, glimpses are all we really need.

Two vignettes towards the end hint at Nana’s gradual disillusionment with her life; one scene in a bar when she puts a record on a juke box and starts dancing to catch the eye of a potential john, but gradually starts dancing for its own sake, losing herself in a taste of fun that’s probably become all too rare for her. She also starts off the second vignette trying to lure a john – in this case an older man reading in a cafe – but ends up in a deeply introspective conversation with him about how imperfectly language handles nebulous concepts like “love” and “happiness” and understanding one’s own self. It’s a bit of a throwback to her first conversation with her husband, where Nana struggles to find the right words to explain just why she is so unhappy with him.

The ending is really abrupt – very similar to Godard’s earlier work, Breathless, in that both films end seconds after a person is shot in the street. But with Breathless I was left cold – while here, I was invested enough to blurt out a shocked “what?”

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