Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live, 1962)

“God knows where He leads us but we know not the path of our journey.”
“Deliverance?”
“Death.”

— Carl Theodor Dreyer, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

After he’d got his start in feature filmmaking with À bout de souffle at the age of around 30, Godard maintained a prodigious output, through all his many phases. This film, known variously in the English-language world as My Life to Live or It’s My Life, came just a couple of years after his debut but already he’d made two features and a short film, and his 1960s output would be sustained at two or even three features a year thereafter.

Formally — and, as flagged in its very title, it is very much concerned with form — Vivre sa vie is a provocation. The structure is 12 chapters (“douze tableaux”) which are each set out with an intertitle featuring, as in a screenplay, a description of the setting, but also a laconic précis of what will happen. If this strategy means to flag the film up as a constructed work of fiction, then the viewer is left in no doubt by the distancing tactics in the first scene proper, which presents a conversation between the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) and her husband Paul from the backs of their heads (first hers then, at length, his). It’s a bold aesthetic choice, which is carried through to the rest of the film (and shows up increasingly in Godard’s later films), though it happens we’ve already seen Karina’s face, first in profile, then head on, and then profile from the other direction, beneath the opening credits. It’s a hint that whatever else the film might deal with, it’s above all interested in Karina — yes, at some level with her character Nana, but also Karina as both an actress and as a wife.

Karina was Godard’s first wife and their marriage was quite recent when the film was being made. Indeed, with such a tireless work ethic, it’s no surprise perhaps that the feelings and issues Godard was dealing with in real life should have suffused the films he made. If certain aspects of his use of Karina do not reflect well on his opinion of her — she is one of the first of his central characters to play a prostitute, and far from the last — there’s still plenty of self-criticism too. The men in her life are ineffectual and treat her with barely-suppressed contempt: the final sequence is shocking as much for the off-handedness with which it unfolds as for its outcome. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard hold Karina at the heart of the film and if the narrative keeps the film at a studied distance from the audience, the camera certainly doesn’t do likewise for Nana. She rarely gets the chance to escape the camera’s gaze, in fact — the camera loves her, or at the very least is fascinated by her. In this, she is like Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Dreyer’s great silent film about Joan of Arc shot in disorienting close-up, which Nana goes to watch in a cinema. At the same time, she is in a sense trapped (as a character into prostitution, as an actor by the camera) — during the sixth ‘chapter’, shortly after falling into prostitution, Karina/Nana looks directly at the camera with a haunted look. Like Joan, Nana is a doomed icon, filmed in evanescent black-and-white.

Nana’s move into prostitution is never precisely explained — she asks several people early in the film if she can borrow 2000 francs, she is seen running from her landlords, and speaks of getting work as an actress — but ultimately the prostitution theme seems more a part of Godard’s interest in commodification. The quotations he uses and the narrative influences he takes (Brecht is only the most prominent in this film) just foreshadow his later decisive move into overtly political filmmaking (his late-60s and 70s work engages with a Marxist-Leninist dialectic). It’s all part of the society Godard is analysing, where Nana becomes a chattel traded amongst men just like the records she’s seen selling early on in the film. Her status as object is in some ways not just a thematic concern but is integrated into the very formal and visual strategies the film adopts, not just the Brechtian distancing of the chapter headings, but also Godard’s prominent frontal staging and lateral tracking shots as well as, most notably, his insistence on lighting scenes so as to minimise depth of field — all strategies that would be extended over the decade and can still be perceived, ever more distilled, in Tout va bien ten years later.

Quite aside from these formal and thematic concerns, I think the film stands as a wonderful piece of cinema, with Karina’s gaze having since become an iconic image of the French nouvelle vague. There’s still a freshness and enthusiasm to the performances that belies the very rigid ways in which the camera moves, though even here Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography has never been more beautiful. For me, in many ways, Vivre sa vie stands as the film in which the formal concerns that would come to dominate Godard’s later period are merged most easily with his pulp influences to produce a film that remains a wonderfully invigorating piece of cinema that stands up 50 years later.


© Panthéon Distribution

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina | Length 83 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013)

My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see


Next Up: For me, Godard’s most formally ambitious film of his early phase is Le Mépris (1963), a reflection on the nature of filmmaking itself, featuring international stars and a spectacular use of widescreen colour compositions, but retaining an appropriately Olympian detachment that makes it difficult to love wholeheartedly.

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À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

Debuts banner

This post was written for the Debuts Blogathon jointly organised and hosted by Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark at Three Rows Back (and can be read there with comments). Aside from presenting my thoughts on the film, in this case the debut of French director Jean-Luc Godard, it attempts to answer the questions they posed about “how your director of choice’s first feature has impacted on their work. How have their subsequent films fared against their debut? Have they improved or steadily declined over subsequent features?”


There were, in 1960, certain ways of making feature films wherever you were in the world, methods that had been built up over the preceding half-century of filmmaking and which continue to endure to this day in mainstream cinema. The key thing about this debut film from young French film critic Jean-Luc Godard is that few of these methods were followed, though such rulebreaking might have had less effect had the film not also been an enjoyable pulpy retrofitting of familiar American imagery. One of Godard’s famous aphorisms, which he attributes to D.W. Griffith, is that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and here indeed there’s a girl (Patricia, played by the American Jean Seberg) and a gun, generally wielded by gangster Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo). He’s on the run, she hooks up with him: that’s all you really need to know about the plot.

Referencing pulpy B-movies from the States was part of a deliberate strategy by a number of like-minded French critics making their first films all at the same time, loudly rebelling against the staid cinema of their fathers’ generation. This movement became acclaimed as the nouvelle vague (or ‘French New Wave’), and if François Truffaut gained a lot of early attention for his Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), it’s Godard who set out a lot of what made this New Wave memorable and which define its lasting legacy. In his films in particular you can see a youthful passion for cinema combined with formal innovations showing a blatant disregard for classical techniques, often informed by a self-consciously revolutionary politics. Even in this very first film of Godard’s can be seen a lot of what would later come to dominate his style.

First let’s talk politics. Not party politics (of which there’s plenty as Godard gets older), but la politique des auteurs. That phrase translates as “the policy of authors” in French, but the common translation of the term in the English language has been “the auteur theory”, thanks to Andrew Sarris’s writings from the 1960s onwards. It was a critical idea of Truffaut’s that helped to shape the way that the New Wave first developed, as a director-focused movement, but I think its value has been overstated. In many ways it’s a provocation like the Dogme 95 manifesto of Lars von Trier (and others), a way of focusing attention and signalling a change in methods from the mainstream. It has also helped to focus critical attention on the French New Wave, though similar changes in filmmaking practice were taking hold in various parts of the world at the same time, whether the Italy of Antonioni and Pasolini, or the American films of John Cassavetes.

The “auteur theory” is alluring for Godard’s films in particular, which often seem like such personal expressions, but even in this very first film he liked to expose the mechanics of filmmaking. It starts here with Michel addressing the camera directly as if the audience is a passenger in the car he’s driving. There’s also a sequence later on when Michel and Pauline are walking and talking down the Paris streets, and all the passers-by can be clearly seen turning and staring at them and the camera. (This scene also neatly illustrates both the simple energy of just capturing a spontaneous and improvised scene directly — an energy that suffuses the film as a whole — but also the technical changes in filmmaking that had in part opened up the way for the nouvelle vague, as smaller and more portable cameras became available.) Only a few years later, in Le Mépris (1963), Godard would kick off the film by showing the cameraman Raoul Coutard backed up by his crew dollying down a track filming the actors while Godard read out the credits, and this kind of breaking of the fourth wall would become a regular feature of his films.

Not unrelated is Godard’s habit for improvising dialogue. The script here is credited to Truffaut — and there was creative input too from Claude Chabrol (another critic and nascent filmmaker) — but that script was only apparently the outline of the film. The scenes as they play in the film were as often scribbled out by Godard himself, shortly before filming took place, and this would often be his method in future. Yet this personal inspiration (that of the auteur) is one that draws heavily on other texts and influences. There’s scarcely a scene that doesn’t quote the American cinema he so loved — whether it’s Michel standing in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), tracing his fingers around his lips as he imagines Bogart to do, or mimicking Debbie Reynolds’ melodramatic mugging in Singin’ in the Rain as he sits around Patricia’s apartment. These are just two examples, though. There are many more allusions to Hollywood movies, and it’s a habit that Godard would only extend, taking influences and presenting decontextualised quotations from film and literature like a magpie, until eventually entire films of his (such as Histoire(s) du cinéma) become playful interrogations of sources. Godard, more than most directors, has always remained a critic.

This first film also exposes some common techniques and themes that Godard liked to use. There are those long-takes of characters talking that do away with the classical shot-reverse shot construction, so here you have Patricia questioning Michel in the car while you hear his replies from off-screen. There are the sequence shots of couples in cramped domestic spaces bickering about meaningless topics, trying to escape one another (and the film’s frame), but never succeeding. There’s the fecklessness of male desire, and its betrayal by women — it’s interesting in this regard that Patricia was explicitly noted by Godard as an extension of Seberg’s character Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse, another young woman isolated in a world of unconstrained chauvinist desire (and she’s great in both films). Yet if there’s often in Godard’s films a self-important male figure (like Jean-Pierre Melville’s author at a press conference near the end) espousing generalisations about women, it’s also often accompanied and set in juxtaposition to lacerating self-critique (Godard himself plays an informer in the film). And I haven’t even mentioned the famous jump cuts.

But in 1960 none of this would mean very much if it was just another young director showing off his Brechtian or cineaste credentials, as so many like to do. The point is that around this time there weren’t any mainstream filmmakers doing this stuff. Sure, there were occasional isolated examples of these techniques beforehand, but for Godard (as for like-minded young directors of the era such as Cassavetes) it was just the way he made films. It shows most of all in the looseness and jazzy rhythms of this debut, more akin to documentary than to feature films of the period. Godard would extend his interests as his career progressed, becoming ever more esoteric as his meaning became more opaque, but he was never more accessible than in this first, exciting despatch from the front lines of a new wave.


© UGC

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director Jean-Luc Godard | Writer François Truffaut | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 1997 (and several times since, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013)

My Rating 4 stars excellent


Next Up: Moving forward a couple of years, I will look at Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (1962), an ever more Brechtian assemblage of beautiful women (Anna Karina) and the exploitative crassness of capitalism.

Director Focus: Jean-Luc Godard

Godard with a camera, sometime in those black-and-white days.
Godard with a camera, sometime in those black-and-white days.

Having been writing reviews on this blog for around six months now, I thought it was time to try a new feature. So here is my ‘Director Focus’ month, where I organise my reviews around the work of a single director. I am, after all, a habitual auteurist as you’ll see from my credits and lists of reviews — though that’s not say I don’t think there’s plenty of room to critique the assumption that directors are the ultimate ‘authors’ of a film. Nevertheless, I wanted to start out with a director who’s been at the forefront of discussions around auteurism, and since the term originated with the French nouvelle vague, so I have chosen Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard was born in Paris on 3 December 1930, of Swiss descent. He spent his early years in Switzerland (where I believe he now lives), but didn’t start getting into films until moving back to Paris for university. Like many of the other filmmakers who would come to prominence in the nouvelle vague, such as François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, his cinematic education came via Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française, and the film programmes screened there. From this it was a natural step into film criticism, in Godard’s case via the newly-founded Cahiers du cinéma magazine.

His move into feature filmmaking was in gestation for much of the late-1950s, and when an initial script with Truffaut came to nothing, he made a number of short films. It wasn’t until 1959, thanks in part to changes in the law which opened up space for more low-budget features, that he and other other directors of the nouvelle vague were able to get their start making feature films. Godard was among them and soon moved forward with his debut, À bout de souffle (Breathless), which he shot that Autumn and was released the following year.

I’ll be reviewing this first film for the Debuts Blogathon (over at Three Rows Back and Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop), which I recommend you follow, and will repost it on this journal in a few days. In the meantime, I will have a review up tomorrow of a precursor to and influence on this debut film, Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958). I intend to then look at other key films throughout Godard’s career, hopefully bringing us up to date, though even at the age of 82, Godard remains active as a filmmaker, having recently made a 3D feature called Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language).

It’s worth mentioning that despite his status as one of the archetypal film ‘auteurs’ (and the photo reproduced at the head of this post), Godard has always been reliant on his collaborators. There’s an amusing section of a documentary included as a bonus on the edition of Breathless I have, in which Donn Pennebaker, a pioneer of Direct Cinema in the US, is interviewed about the time Godard visited New York in the late-1960s to make One A.M. (One American Movie). Pennebaker expressed surprise that Godard didn’t seem to know how to use a camera he was given; Godard’s more comfortable position after all had always been to the side of his cinematographer (in the 1960s, this was most often Raoul Coutard), giving instructions.

Nevertheless, in the course of these reviews, I expect to touch on a number of Godard’s themes and obsessions, that have been developed over the course of his filmic work. These will no doubt include his attitude towards women (who often appear as prostitutes), his relationship to revolutionary politics, his stylisation and flattening of the image, and his use of quotations from film and literature in an increasingly collagist way.

I hope you will stay with me for this Director Focus month.

Upcoming Posts (19-23 August) and New Feature

Godard with a camera, sometime in those black-and-white days.
Godard with a camera, sometime in those black-and-white days.

New Feature: Director Focus

So I thought I needed to shake things up a little bit from just straight reviews and add a new feature. And although it will become evident that even this idea involves more reviews, it should be reviews with a bit of structure around them. You see, those nice chaps Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark at Three Rows Back are doing a ‘blogathon’ on the theme ‘Debuts’ and for some reason they’ve let me contribute, even though I haven’t so much as half an idea about what a ‘blogathon’ might be. As I’m unimaginative, I picked a debut they suggested in their post, so I’ll be covering Jean Luc-Godard’s A bout de souffle.

This got me thinking that, well, you can see from my site I’m a bit of an auteurist, so what with owning quite a few of Godard’s key works, it would make sense to string it out into a director focus that I hope will become a regular strand. And his place at the head of the French Nouvelle Vague makes him as good a director as any to start with. Other blogs do something similar, and who am I to mess with a fine idea? So there we go, I’ll do an introduction in September, with reviews of a few of Godard’s key works tracing his directorial development, which fingers-crossed will allow me to properly tackle his debut for Chris and Mark.

Upcoming Posts (19-23 August)

While we’re here, and looking more immediately forward to next week, I will have a new Movie Lottery series entry, on The Last of the Mohicans (1992), which I recently watched after drawing its title from a hat. Those of you who’ve read my Favourite Films page will have an inkling of the kind of review I’ll be giving it.

I’ll also have a review of Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park (1993), and since I appear to be stuck in the 90s maybe I should watch some other films from that forgotten era.

I’m honestly not sure, however, how many of the new releases this week are likely to catch my attention. Maybe Kick-Ass 2 though I’m feeling lukewarm about going to see it, and probably 2 Guns. Perhaps there’ll be something at an arthouse cinema I can share, or a retrospective screening.

Hope to see you at Ewan at the Cinema next week.