Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film was born out of a period of crisis and uncertainty in his life and career. His marriage to Anna Karina had come under immense strain in its first year after she suffered a miscarriage. Later in the year she had an affair with a fellow actor, which in turn lead to a suicide attempt. Meanwhile Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), despite favourable reviews, had flopped at the box office, and a number of other projects had failed to materialize. Indeed the entire New Wave movement was under attack from all sides after a series of commercial failures. At the same time, Godard had begun to question and criticize his own filmmaking methods and the content of his work. While his colleagues in the movement were moving towards more mainstream commercial cinema, he was moving in the other direction towards more political, uncompromising work. Vivre sa vie was the breakthrough he had been working towards. It differed radically in subject matter, style, form and technique from his first three films, but in the long run would prove as equally influential as his much-heralded debut A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960).
The film begins with three silhouettes of Anna Karina, left profile, full face, right profile. With her Louise Brooks hairstyle, the actress looks like she might have stepped out of 1920s Berlin. This is no coincidence, the German playwrite Bertolt Brecht, a key figure from that era, was a major influence on the film’s style. Indeed Godard got the idea for dividing the narrative into twelve distinct chapters or theatrical tableaux from The Threepenny Opera and Brecht’s concept of epic theatre and his use of “distancing effects” here become an intrinsic part of Godard’s method for the first time. A more immediate influence on the film’s style was motivated by an interview Francois Truffaut gave with a newspaper a few months earlier in which he had grouped Godard with a list of directors who treated film as spectacle rather than as a language. The first group, he argued, filmed the nature of actions, while the later used cinema to film ideas. Determined to place himself among the intellectual directors, Godard decided to make a film “of moral conflicts between characters who speak usually with their backs turned.” The opening scene, shot in a series of long, carefully composed shots, immediately puts this plan into practice by showing Nana from behind at the bar of a café as she talks with her husband who she is leaving for another man.
Godard’s approach to technique in this first scene, and throughout the film, marks a significant change in style from his first three films. Feeling now that he had moved the camera too much in Breathless, he used heavier equipment under more traditional conditions, lit locations correctly, and captured direct sound at the time of filming, rather than overdubbing later. These more conventional methods required a larger crew, which made each set-up more time consuming to prepare. To save time and money, he worked more carefully, shooting long takes, many lasting more than three minutes. Godard told an interviewer that he wanted “to shoot on location, in natural settings, but without making a film of reportage. It will rather be a film in the theatrical spirit.” This way of filming, he knew, would allow Anna Karina, to give a sustained performance, which his camera would frame and allow to unfold in its own time. It also gives the film a more precise, classical feel than the loose, freewheeling approach of his earlier films, although, when Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard do move the camera, they do so with daring and purpose, such as the jump cut tracking shot that mimics the rattle of a machine gun.
Godard conceived Vivre sa vie as a showcase for Anna Karina’s talent; an attempt also, perhaps, to save their marriage through cinematic collaboration. In the event, she does not disappoint, giving a performance both truthful and deeply affecting. Her sincerity and charm go some way to bridging the gap between the objective viewpoint of the camera and the subjective viewpoint of the character. Godard, a man still clearly in love, frames her like a painter, successfully capturing her ravishing beauty and her fragile vulnerability. Despite their mutual achievement and the acclaim it brought, however, Karina was resentful about her appearance in the film. “She was furious afterwards,” Godard recalled, “because she thought I had made her look ugly, that I had done her a considerable wrong by having made this film; that was the beginning of our breakup.” A film that should have brought them closer together drove them further apart.
Profoundly wounded himself by his wife’s infidelity, Godard derived much of the opening scene’s dialogue from their own relationship. She warns him, “If we get back together, I’ll betray you again,” and blames him for preventing her from fulfilling her ambitions as an actress. In the film’s eleventh sequence, Nana’s young lover reads to her from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Oval Portrait”. It is not the actor’s voice on screen we hear but Godard himself who recites the passages. The story concerns a painter who grows so obsessed with a painting depicting his wife that he pays no attention to the real woman. When he is finished he looks at the work and exclaims, “This is indeed life itself!” Then turns to see his bride, and discovers that she has died and her spirit has transferred into the lifelike painting. The inference is clear; Godard saw it as fate that he would lose the woman he loved as the price of their artistic collaboration.
Beyond his own personal concerns, Vivre sa vie represented Godard’s continued preoccupation with existential themes and the place of the individual in the modern world. Nana inhabits a Paris of coffee bars, pinball machines, pool halls, jukeboxes, and advertising posters. She dreams of becoming an actress but lacks the control over her own life to make it happen; her brief moments of escape come through a trip to the cinema or a pop record. At the start of the film she asserts her independence by leaving her husband but ends up becoming more and more manipulated by men until she ends up as nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold between rival pimps. The bitter irony reaches its inevitable conclusion in the film’s final scene.
At the 1962 Venice Film Festival, despite being booed after the screening, Vivre sa vie won two prizes: the Critics’ Prize and the Special Jury Prize. Most critics immediately recognised the film’s achievement. One heralded the film as “a new masterpiece” and ranked it alongside the films of Rossellini and Bresson, while another called it “the first absolutely flawless film by Godard.” Francois Truffaut wrote that the film opened doors to a new beginning for cinema and he was right, Vivre sa vie, with its lengthy dialogue scenes and artful framing, has been an inspiration for generations of filmmakers. For Godard the film proved a catalyst for the dazzling array of movies that he made in quick succession in its wake. The film’s brilliance put him at the forefront of the New Wave, re-establishing it as an intellectual and aesthetic force just at the moment when its future seemed most in doubt.