Ranking: #44/111

Director: Jean-Luc Godard (France)

Genre: Social Drama

Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live) is a major work of French New Wave cinema. The film is a masterpiece from the mercurial filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who reminds me of Stanley Kubrick in that no two films in their respective bodies of work are remotely similar. Kubrick and Godard always tried to make a completely new and original film, changing genres and even film style if necessary. This radically open-ended approach contrasts with a director like Hitchcock who specialised in psychological thrillers, usually involving crime, or like Ozu who developed a distinctive style throughout his work, always focusing on interrelationships within extended families.

Vivre Sa Vie is a social drama which builds up a portrait, through twelve vignettes (“douze tableaux”) of the life of a prostitute in Paris in the 60s. Even though there’s an overall documentary-like feel to the movie, it’s probably the director’s most tender and personal film. He shows intuitive empathy for the plight of the central character, Nana, the young Parisian woman who aspires to be an actress but ends up as a prostitute. At the same time, it’s a highly disciplined and artistic study of one woman’s increasingly alienated and, ultimately, tragic, life. There is often an icy objectivity to the film. “I want to expose a cruel truth here,” Godard sometimes seems to be saying.

The twelve episodes, or sequences, show Nana’s life becoming more fragmented, less under her control, as the difficult and dangerous life of prostitution takes its toll. Anna Karina is compelling as Nana. Godard develops her as a fully rounded, quite complex, person.

At the start of the movie, she is working in a record shop and is about to break off her relationship with her boyfriend Paul. The relationship is going nowhere: “The more we talk, the less the words mean.” In the opening shot the characters are filmed from behind, suggesting their growing alienation. Throughout the film, characters do not seem to face the camera, as if they are avoiding its gaze.

Later, Nana goes to the movies and is moved by Dreyer’s famous silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her tears recall those of Joan in the classic film’s profound close-ups, while foreshadowing her future when she, too, will be trapped in a situation from which there’s no escape.

Her life starts to drift, and when her landlady evicts her from her apartment when she cannot pay the rent that’s owing, she has nowhere permanent to live. Her ambition is still to become an actress. She then meets a man who promises to take photos of her to build up a photographic portfolio. He asks her to undress and she reluctantly agrees.

After a brush with the police, she gets involved in prostitution, almost by accident, to earn some much-needed money. Then she meets an old friend, Yvette, who has also become a prostitute after her husband abandoned her and their children. Yvette introduces Nana to Raoul, her pimp. She agrees to work for him. Raoul then “trains” Nana on how to conduct herself, what she should charge, and so on.

By now, her dreams of being an actress have ended. She doesn’t realise that her life is becoming increasingly trapped. Godard gradually unveils the process of her degeneration.

Later, Nana falls in love with a young man who is one of her clients and she decides she wants to quit her profession and marry this man. Her pimp refuses to set her free because he’s about to sell her to another pimp. Forcing her into his car, he drives her to meet the other pimp. The deal falls through in an argument about money and Nana is shot in an ensuing gunbattle. The men flee, leaving her lifeless body on the pavement. This last scene is shot with clinical precision as just another transaction in the life of a prostitute, bereft of emotion, which, paradoxically, adds to the poignance the audience feels at her demise.

Godard has ruthlessly exposed the lack of rights and humanity accorded to prostitutes in the Paris of the 60s. They are seen in the film as commodities for sale. Just as Nana once sold records at the store, her own life became a product for sale once she lost her economic and personal independence.

In Vivre Sa Vie, an elegant, philosophical script, has been brought to life in a plausible story of the fall of a young woman. Its sociological message about a society which looks upon its people as commodities is fully evoked through the story. Godard is harking back to Kantian ethics, which established that human beings should be treated as an end-in-themselves and not as a means-to- an-end. Humans should have value in themselves but this was decidedly not the case for Nana.