Jean-Luc Godard: Vivre sa Vie

By Frieda Grafe

vivre-sa-vie-jean-luc-godard.jpgVivre sa Vie, 1962

"I know what I want to say, I think before I say it, to be quite sure that it is what I must say – phtt – suddenly I can't say it anymore", Nana explains to the philosopher with whom she started a conversation in a café. And the philosopher in turn explains that this sort of thing happens out of fear not to be able to find the right word. It can also easily befall a critic of Godard's latest film. A film that demonstrates, among other things, the multitude of things that can be said about one and the same phenomenon can easily make her speechless, even though it does offer the consolation that even error harbours some truth and that the effort on finding the right word may be rewarded with the right thing to say about it.

As mentioned, that is just one of the issues this film is about; in the first place it concerns a young person who simultaneously loses and conquers herself. And this is told in a style that corresponds exactly to this double track. The tension derives from the constant confrontation between poetry and documentation.

But first Nana's rather simple story: Nana (Karina) has come to Paris from the country. She lived with Paul (Labarthe), has his child. But these attachments did not make her happy. She feels vaguely that this life is not the one she is meant to lead. She leaves Paul and the child. With a dialogue between her and Paul, which triggers the final separation, the film begins and so does Nana's new life. During their conversation we see the speakers from behind, only once the decision has been made, do they reveal their faces. From this moment on, the camera hardly leaves Nana. We see her selling records in a shop. The money she makes does not even pay for the rent. She tries to make a living by occasionally prostituting herself; later she becomes a professional prostitute. The profession seems to supply what she needs to live. In a billiards hall she meets the love of her life in Pierre. At the moment when she is willing to give up her profession out of love for him, she dies under the bullets of pimps.

These are the outward stations of the roughly eight months of her life that the film describes in 12 chapters, signalled by inter-titles. But alongside these external events shaping Nana's new life, something happens to her that changes her inner life with the same sort of decisiveness. Nana finds the way to her own self. And it is quite incredible how the film manages to transpose this gradual process into images without any verbal explanations. How little Nana is "at home with herself" is shown by her gestures in the record shop. Moving along the counter she gives the impression of mistaking it for a catwalk.

How far she is from what she wants to be is made clear by the images which show her in a cinema, completely shattered by Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. Her tear-stained face, in which we read pity but mainly a state of pure rapture, insinuates the distance between Jeanne d'Arc, who despite inhuman resistance did live her life, and Nana, who only stands tentatively at the beginning of this path.

Who Nana is, what the yardsticks are that she has set herself, is shown in two consecutive scenes: in the first she sells herself for twenty francs to pay the rent; in the second we see her at a police station where she admits to having tried to keep money somebody had lost. While she conducts the transaction in the first scene in a completely free and natural manner, she seems ashamed and depressed in the second. That fact that conventions don't matter to her does not mean that she is without moral standards.

One of the issues raised against this film was that it trivialised the problem of prostitution. With all reservations that arise from the different subjects, this reproach is on a par with that made against Resnais, to evoke Hiroshima within a private love story. Resnais said that he had not made a documentary about Hiroshima precisely because he did not wish to place this event before the viewers but to make clear to them their own close connection to Hiroshima. And when it comes to Godard: would a statistical treatise about prostitution concern and reach anyone? In his film Godard has documentary material of the Parisian judge Sacotte read out aloud and the pictures that accompany these readings – showing Nana at work – are hardly of the kind to show the life of a prostitute in rosy colours or to soothe one's conscience. That sort of thing has been shown in endless accounts of street-walkers, in which their world, more or less concealed, is presented to the bourgeois as a paradise at the fringe of bourgeois society. Stories about the tart with the golden heart proved that even in the most undignified circumstances human emotions can't be suppressed. Nana dies at the end. Admittedly the manner of the end is not the most brilliant invention of the film. But if one takes this ending as a metaphor for the impossibility to live in such circumstances, it may well be justified.

Strangely, no critic was worried by the other stylization, the culmination of her positive development and the antithesis of her physical downfall. Maybe because in films this sort of thing is more common. It has been mentioned already that parallel to the negative development of Nana's outer fate runs a positive one, the conquest of her real self. And completely in keeping with the two developments the film shows a double climax, one ends in Nana's death and the other is her final self-discovery in the love for Pierre. "Love is a solution, provided it is true", as Nana found out in her conversation with the philosopher.

It would perhaps shift the emphasis of the film a bit too much if one were to put this conversation with the philosopher at its very centre. But it is no exaggeration to regard it as the summary and generalisation of all thematic strands of the film and as key to its form (though this only works in the original not the mutilated German dubbed version). This conversation has also aroused the ire of some viewers. The question arises if this reaction should be taken as a fundamental aversion against popularisation of readily available cultural knowledge or as exasperation caused by the necessity of having to look up Leibniz and Contingency in a philosophical dictionary. When really all the conversation does is to repeat discursively what has already been expressed in various forms by the images: that there is such a thing as a corporeal and a spiritual life, that the development of both forms do not always proceed in tandem, and that one tends to make judgements on the basis of appearances. And furthermore this conversation makes clear that current imaginary clichés about prostitutes have as little relevance in regard to Nana as that of her colleague Elisabeth to the queen of England.

Godard hardly wanted to say with his film that prostitution is a profession like any other but rather that to lead a life one knows is unsuitable but carries on leading because of social considerations and fear of any effort and trouble amounts to a form of prostitution. Such ideas in Godard are certainly not intended towards reforming the structures of society. They address exclusively the individual. Ideas like this make clear that the connections between Vivre sa Vie and Montaigne's Essays are not exhausted by Montaigne's single sentence that stands as a motto of the film at the beginning. One only needs to look up the third book of the Essays to realise that Nana's mode of living has decidedly more relevance for Montaigne's instructions about the "art of living" than to existentialist maxims, as been said occasionally. For Montaigne it is "highest and quasi divine perfection to rejoice truly in one's own being". In this respect Nana is his good pupil. Family ties cannot prevent her from living her life and political realities do not seem to give her a headache at all. For her people who shoot are gangsters. It would be much too simple to deduct clues about Godard's political position from the fact that his heroine is a person who is not politically engaged. Nana's misreading of political combatants is just one of the variants of the theme the film addresses in ever changing form, that badly used language and dishonesty are the same thing and that dishonesty comes into the world when one does not live with enough consciousness.

We have stated that one of the keys to the film's form was to be found in the conversation with the philosopher and that this conversation is but a verbal repetition of what had been expressed visually. It is indeed an artistic principle of this film to repeat what has been said and what has been shown in other forms and to reflect on that. The quotation – though we should stay with film terminology and say "insert" – which is one of the mannerisms of the New Wave, becomes a decisive structuring device for the first time in Godard's film. It is no longer a put-on gag, a conspiratorial wink among a small group of initiates – even the brief allusion to Truffaut's Jules et Jim reflects on Godard's subject matter – instead, it determines the rhythm of the film in a very important way.

The film, which from the beginning prevents the viewer from submitting to a thoughtless fascination through the use its inserts, annihilates the position of the omniscient narrator by interspersing the "configured with the enunciated" (Brecht). So for instance at the beginning of the film the theme is rendered in a childish language: "The chicken is an animal…", then a colleague in the record shop reads aloud a passage from a magazine story about the beginning of a new life. Then there is the scene from the Dreyer film already mentioned. The viewer is introduced to Nana's physical appearance through words written in an application letter, which Nana wants to send to a brothel-keeper in the country. This passage does not just characterise Nana most charmingly. The manner in which the camera shows the composition of the missive, letter by letter, with all the hesitations and deliberation, shows just how difficult any statement is and the care one takes in when it comes to statements about oneself on the one hand and to the enunciated and written word on the other hand.

Another insert is the reading aloud of the already mentioned report of Sacotte. Here too there is never a direct correlation between the enunciated that one hears and the images one sees. This slight dislocation proves that statements about one and the same thing could be made in different ways, and the confrontation between the (verbally) expressed and the visually configured story of Nana reminds us that all statements can only grasp aspects of reality.

The theme of the film finds yet another form of expression in the conversation with the philosopher, who tries to use a kind of language everybody understands but whose view of things and people is naturally coloured by philosophical concepts which make him take recourse to his specialist terminology.

Finally we also need to mention the scene where Pierre reads Poe's short story The Oval Portrait to Nana. This quotation seems to be almost outside the frame of the film's narrative, because it has least to do with the Nana shown in the film. In this scene, what is more important for the film is the fact that the few words that the couple exchange appear in subtitles and which therefore defines it as a parallel to the already mentioned scene from La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. After all, Nana has reached her destination, a destination in which language is optional. To say less, the philosopher had said, means to love one another more. For the two lovers language has become obsolete as a means of communication, at least at this stage of love.

While Poe's short story is of little importance to a description of Nana's persona it is highly relevant for Godard's aesthetic concept. It says in the story that the magic of the oval portrait lies in its "life-likeness", where the effective correspondence between the image of life and life. The important word is correspondence: Godard never tried in his films to imitate life, instead he takes real events and uses them to construct his stories, which never conceal the fact that they are something constructed. This is made clear by his manner of directing actors. Conventional drama instructors would have regarded the scene where Karina enters the doorways three times in the same way as wooden and amateur, just like old school film experts considered of shots and the cutting of À bout de Souffle sloppy. There is a similar thing with Karina's dance in the billiard hall. The ravishing beauty of this scene has hardly anything to do with perfect acting. One has the impression that she stands beside her gestures. The charm of this scene lies in the spontaneity of Nana's intention. With her dance she is silently wooing Pierre, distantly reminiscent of certain animal rituals.

How Godard understands his art is revealed most clearly in the short scene where Luigi tries to cheer up Nana by showing her how a child blows up a balloon until its bursts. As far as Godard seems to be concerned, art's claim to truth is only fulfilled when its form relativizes its content as a subjective maker's opinion.

Frieda Grafe's first film review – her second published text – first appeared in Filmkritik 11/62. 6.Jahrgang, 11.Heft November 1962, 511-516. Reprinted in Frieda Grafe: Schriften, 4.Band, p.74-80, Berlin 2003 (edited by Enno Patalas).

Frieda Grafe (born August 20, 1934 in Mülheim an der Möhne, Germany; died 10 July 2002 in Munich) was a German film critic, essayist, and translator. From 1962 to 1972, she wrote film reviews and essays exculsively for the German film journal Filmkritik, and from 1970 for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and also wrote lectures and produced radio features. She was involved in monographs on Fritz Lang, Jerry Lewis, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg. She translated books by and about Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, Jean-Joseph Goux, Paul Virilio, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, and worked on several documentaries with her husband, the film historian and critic Enno Patalas (former director of the Filmmuseum München). Between 2002-2009 her completed works (Schriften) were published in eleven volumes (edited by Enno Patalas). Grafe's precise and montage-like writing (écriture) was influenced by her interest in photography, fashion, philosophy, linguistics, feminism, literature and painting. 

Her essay on Godard's Vivre sa Vie is presented here for the first time in English. Vertigo would like to thank Enno Patalas for permission to publish it and Gwendolyn Leick for her translation.