“A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Take away the outside and the inside is left. Take away the inside and you see it’s soul.”
In Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard juxtaposes a tragic story with stylistic camera work and affectless acting to create a wholly surprising film.
The heroine of Godard’s Vivre sa Vie Nana, a character I for one immediately passed off as a shallow, beautiful young woman, turns out to be a surprisingly complex character. In a desire (perhaps more accurately need) for money she falls somewhat casually into prostitution, something she tackles with the same emotionless malaise with which she encounters all of life, Godard did, after all, invent apathy.
There’s an extended monologue about halfway through the film, after Nana’s first tangle with prostitution, in which she brushes off a friend’s self-pity with a repeated refrain of “Je suis responsable,” “I think we’re always responsible for our actions,” in English.
The sense of apathy consumes Vivre Sa Vie; Godard’s characters move through life un-moved, supremely self-centered but surprisingly guilt-free. They’re casual, flippant about their actions, and Nana is no exception. “Things just are what they are.”
It’s an interesting style in which to tell a supremely tragic story.
That contrast, between the casualness of the characters and the tragic nature of their lives, infuses the entire film with a sensibility of the bizarre; Godard is insistently and intentionally disrupting our assumptions about his heroine. She is not a weak woman who grasps at prostitution as a last resort, we see her engage in sexual acts with strangers the way she approaches everything else in her life. We see her interested in it despite Raoul’s particularly un-enticing description of her duties, and we see her in bedrooms flirting her way into higher fees. We know through all of her actions, she has chosen this, something made all the more shocking by the film’s ending.
Godard refers to Nana as an amateur philosopher in one of the scene changes and she is. Perhaps to French audiences it is not abnormal to have a working-class character engaged in deep conversation about our inextricable relationship with words and a desire for silence, but it certainly is for Americans. Godard once again, towards the film’s conclusion, troubles our impression of Nana by staging a heady philosophical conversation about Aristotle and love with an elderly gentleman in the bar immediately before he shows her mindlessly dancing in what seems a desperate (although of course only in our heads) grab for the attention of a man at a movie house.
So when Nana emotionlessly proclaims that “Tout est beau,” we know nothing better than to believe her.
Godard’s highly personal camera-work should convince us we know his characters, but upon the movie’s conclusion I found myself utterly confused. It was only upon reflection that I began to realize what Godard had done. Early in the film Nana is seen crying while watching Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan D’Arc.” It’s an interesting, implicit comparison between the two operating on two levels: Godard’s extended close-ups on Anna Karina’s face are reminiscent of Dreyer’s silent-era reliance on facial expressions only in their close-up because where Dreyer coached Renee Falconetti to extremes, Godard’s Karina is, of course, expressionless throughout. On another level it’s a rather shocking equation between the fate of the two, Joan of Arc and Nana, given the two’s respective lives.
Godard accomplishes much in Vivre Sa Vie, he approaches his camera work as a true auteur, unafraid to experiment with cheap effects and sounds which somehow come together in a wholly unique cinematographic experience, while making a rather revolutionary statement of equality and moral equivalency. Despite Godard’s indifferent performers and uninvolved filming style, an intentional revocation of his directorial right, Vivre Sa Vie manages to both move and trouble.