“My Life to Live”
“Vivre sa vie” or “My Life to Live” is a French New Wave film that also feels distinctly different from some of the more prominent movies of the highly influential movement. Director Jean-Luc Godard released the film in 1962, two years after his groundbreaking debut “Breathless”. Viewers will undoubtedly see similarities between the two films, but “My Life to Live” differentiates itself both in structure, subject, aesthetic, and style. “My Life to Live” undoubtedly attempts to buck common, overused movie trends – something French New Wave films sought to do. At the same time Godard makes “My Life to Live” distinctly its own.
The captivating Anna Karina plays the lead character Nana and she was Godard’s wife at the time. Interstingly, Godard first noticed Karina in a series of Palmolive ads. Godard was preparing for “Breathless”, his feature film debut, and offered Karina a small role in the picture. She turned him down but his persistence led her to be in his next three films and his wife for four years. Their relationship is evident in the movie. Godard’s camera seems enamored by Karina’s face, by her expressions, by her countenance. His concentration on her eyes, the features of her face, the language of her body. Unquestionably much of Godard’s story is told through the lens of his star.
The film is broken down into twelve chapters each with basic synoptic captions. The first introduces us to Nana who is at a cafe with her husband Paul. We learn that she has just left him and their infant daughter to pursue acting. The revealing scene paints a complex picture of Nana. Adding to that complexity is the intriguing camera work by Godard and long-time cinematographer Raul Coutard. The focus is mostly on the back of the two character’s heads. The camera shifts back and forth while strategically giving us glimpses of their faces often through a mirror’s reflection. It leaves us curious about Nana and unsure how we are to feel about her.
Nana’s acting dream seems unrealistic. We see her working in record shop but apparently she can’t make ends meet. She asks different people to borrow money and one particular scene shows her being forcibly removed from her apartment. Out of a sense of desperation she turns to prostitution. But is it desperation or simple necessity? Nana is never easy to read. She approaches life with an open book mentality yet I always found a cloud of mystery around her. At times she seems impervious to possible consequences of her actions. Other times there is a playful life-loving personality that bubbles out. At other times she feels overwhelmed by her circumstances. Mainly she wants to be able to define her life and she wants to be the one to live it.
The film’s look into prostitution of the day adds another level of intrigue. We see Nana grow more and more comfortable and content, but at the same time we the audience begin noticing cracks and concerns within her environment. Godard goes to great lengths to educate us on the mentalities, practices, and laws that made up the Paris prostitution scene of early 1960s. It gives us a better perspective even if it sometimes feels a bit dry and procedural. The coolest thing is how the approach to this element draws from the cinéma vérité documentarian style.
“My Life to Life” is a captivating film slowed down only by the occasional lulls – moments when Godard’s experimentation feels like experimentation instead of storytelling or progression. Still, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the portrait Godard paints. And his cinematic model Anna Karina is a mesmerizing expression of energy, wonder, and reality. Surround her with intoxicating style, layers of cultural references, and a grounded story and you have “My Life to Live” – a film that is uniquely its own nestled within the French New Wave.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
I’d be willing to watch this! Nice review, Keith. I just don’t see enough French films.
Thanks Cindy. I adore French cinema especially New Wave films. This one fits nicely in that group although it definitely does its own thing.
Great review! I haven’t seen too many French New Wave films, but I think I’ll add this to the list. I know I need to see more.
Oh definitely look into the French New Wave. It is one of my favorite cinema movements. This is a good one. Not in my top 5 of the New Wave but a really good one.
There is a lot of experimentation in Vivre sa vie. However it confirms the fact that cinema as a medium could be used in infinite ways. I agree with your point that the camera is enamored by Anna Karina, I’d rather use the word obsessed. The shots of the back of their heads brings in a lot of curiosity, you often wonder how they must be expressing, especially in the opening scene she asks the man ‘Why the look’ and we never get to see the look. The cafe scene after she watches Joan of Arc was crazy too, the over the shoulder shots are shown without any cutting as the camera keeps moving in an arc. I also liked the montage where the rules of prostitution are explained. Also quite curious were the name of the chapters, I remember one being named as the oval portrait where the portrait is described from the book rather than shown.
French New wave was a crazy period in cinema, especially with the films of Goddard. I would call this one as crazy (if not more) as Breathless. However I could empathize with the character a lot more in this film than I did in Breathless
So glad to hear input from someone who has seen the film. The French New Wave is intoxicating. I am mesmerized by the movement, the techniques, the cutting edge approaches. This one definitely fits within the FNW and in its own unique way.
Nice review man. Saw this for the first time a few weeks ago and I was blown away. I wish Godard would return to this style of filmmaking, where he utilized experimentalism for a story instead of an all-out avant-garde feature such as Goodbye to Language.
Thanks man. It’s funny, I have seen most of Godard’s early work but for some reason this one had slipped by me. So glad I finally sat myself down to watch it.
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