I first watched Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless a little over a year ago and fell instantly in love with it. I ran out and bought the two-disc Criterion DVD edition and only one week later Turner Classic Movies listed it as one of their 15 Most Influential Movies of All-Time. Following that film he made A Woman Is a Woman, his first feature with Vivre sa vie star and soon-to-be wife Anna Karina. One year later came Vivre sa vie, a film that didn’t blow me away as much as Breathless, but it is undeniably Godard with a style that almost can’t be explained though the scholars on this Criterion edition offer plenty of comparisons.
Karina stars as Nana, a record shop employee with dreams of becoming an actress and despite what appears to be people trying to either help or take advantage of her, she’s come upon hard times and resorts to prostitution to earn the money she needs. Godard’s influence for the film is well represented on Criterion’s release including photos from Marcel Sacotte’s 1959 non-fiction book “Ou en est: La prostitution” and excerpts from the 1961 French television program “La prostitution”. The photos are accompanied by a short essay by James Williams that sheds further light on several specific instances within the film and why Godard made the choices he did.
Furthermore, the inclusion of an audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin and a 2004 video interview with film scholar Jean Narboni, puts the other pieces of the puzzle together. Considering the film is only 83 minutes long, watching the film and then the commentary is a breeze as I have watched Vivre sa vie almost three times since cracking open the case.
Martin and Narboni refer to the realism of Roberto Rossellini and the style of Michelangelo Antonioni when discussing the film. Martin, in fact, says Rossellini hated the film because it was too much like an Antonioni feature. My enjoyment in the films of both of those directors as well as Godard seems to offer further reason as to why I seemed to fall into this film so easily.
There is no one thing that makes Vivre sa vie great as much as it’s a sum of so many things. Godard’s obscure camera placements add a sense of mystery to a scene. The first scene is an obvious example. Shot entirely from behind, we can only wonder what the characters look like aside from straining to catch a glimpse of their faces in the mirror behind the bar. It’s not important, but it’s human curiosity and it adds intrigue.
Michel Legrand’s score is excellent, and what’s even more interesting is to watch what is referred to as “Godard’s trailer” in the special features. The trailer uses a different piece of music from the film setting an entirely different mood, but once you’ve seen the film and Legrand’s score begins to swell it serves as a cue for you to begin watching a little closer. Then, the music fades out, a few seconds earlier than we are used to, adding an additional level of wonder to what is otherwise just a normal scene. It’s magical filmmaking.
The 42-page illustrated booklet that is also included is one of the better pieces of accompanying literature Criterion has put together. It includes a piece of text written by Godard that was included with the film’s promotional material upon release, and is referenced in Narboni’s interview segment offering something of a poetic synopsis when read as written — one word at a time. Next is Godard’s original scenario for the film. It’s not a script as much as a paragraph-by-paragraph outline that runs over five pages. And finally is an abridged essay by James Williams taken from the 2006 collection called “Jean-Luc Godard: Documents,” which is also mentioned in the supplemental material.
A vintage interview with Anna Karina talking about her introduction to Godard and the controversy surrounding their subsequent marriage rounds out the batch.
Overall, this is a stellar package. Breathless remains my favorite Godard feature and I have become a fan of Contempt since Lionsgate released it on Blu-ray as part of the Studio Canal Collection, but Vivre sa vie is already challenging the order. I have much more to see and explore from the famed director, but this was a pleasant addition to my collection and one I recommend you give a look.
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