It’s easy to get anxious about the place of Jean-Luc Godard in our cultural slipstream. He’s held a top-shelf slot of honor that has seemed unassailable for nearly sixty years, but sometimes I fear that his currency is becoming drastically devalued in our always-renovating purgatory of digital 3-D candy corn. How long can the smoky blown-glass armature of a hand-size, self-analyzing film like Vivre sa vie survive in our Dolby-thundering moviedrome alongside giant robots, athletic aliens, superheroes, and talking chipmunks? It will remain a Godardian world, no matter what comes, but who will know it?
For now, the prime Godards are still fresher than last Friday’s blockbusters, and still miles ahead of a medium too often enraptured by empty chaos. In this context, each Godard is a chastening lesson in how humane an art cinema can really be. Of the fifteen or so Godard features of the sixties that essentially define the decade as his, Vivre sa vie, his fourth, is one of the most studied and most quoted, perhaps because its metafictional slippages are more suggested than explicit, or because the thematic meat of the film—poverty and prostitution—is topical and easily codified, at least in comparison with the other films in that oeuvre (just try to pick a thesis-worthy social issue out of Pierrot le fou or Alphaville). Godard’s interest in the politics of whoring has become the way he is most often approached academically in recent years, and not always kindly. No matter: this film pulses with sympathy and rue. The common idea that Godard is a chilly, intellectually remote filmmaker is the first notion you discard when looking at his best work today, in this new century: the films couldn’t be more intimate, impulsive, joyous, and attentive to the subjective nature of experience. Vivre sa vie may be the grimmest entry in Godard’s golden age—the heroine is named Nana, after Zola, for a reason—but its heart is on its sleeve, and tenderness radiates from the screen.
It is also, not incidentally, the third film Godard made with Anna Karina; they’d been married since the spring of 1961, and he may have never made another film so empathetic and heartbroken about the social situation of women. (Indeed, Nana’s doomed pretty-girl hopes of getting into movies, and her subsequent, matter-of-fact spiral into exploitation, could be seen as a worst-case scenario for Karina in an alternate life—there but for the grace of God goes she.) But there’s an inevitable distance, one that haunts all of Godard’s films “about” Karina and, to a significant degree, all of his portraits of women. You can’t miss his self-awareness here—the movie’s signature move is a “close-up” of the back of Karina’s head as she chats with offscreen men, a pensive trope grabbed by both Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh that neatly turns a film’s tendency toward disambiguation on its head. Godard’s shots were always about how he felt about what he saw, and this composition is the equivalent of looking but not seeing, of turning your star’s expressive power into offscreen space, of admitting to the world that, though you love this woman, you do not know her.
Vivre sa vie, broken up into twelve “tableaux,” otherwise spends an enormous amount of its time watching Karina watch and listen to others—trying to figure her out as Nana attempts, and fails, to navigate an unsympathetic world. Her one moment of release is, of course, the film’s most famous scene: the viewing of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in a silent, pitch-black theater, and Nana’s open weeping in pity and self-pity at Falconetti’s saucer-eyed martyr. There’s little overestimating the impact this tiny moment had on cinema at large—in a stroke, Godard iconized the Cinémathèque française lifestyle, an entire generation’s discovery of film as an art form, the capacity of classic cinema-going to be tragic and romantic and supercool, and the quintessentially Godardian idea that movies are always about their own movieness, making them not an escapist alternative to our lives but part of them. Nana is not merely being diverted by the film (she’s been kicked out of her apartment for lack of rent) but living it. Movie characters had watched films in darkened theaters before, but never had we been made to empathize so directly with the act of movie watching, and never before had that act meant so much. Watching both actresses, we are Karina, and for a brief time, we and Godard know exactly how she feels.
Not to mention, Nana is the first in a long line of movie-movie demimondaines allusively sporting Louise Brooks’s ebony bob from Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, which in the context of the narrative is as suggestive of her fate as her name. (When Tarantino co-opted the hairdo for Pulp Fiction, it was Godard he was thinking about, not Pabst.) Life is a movie, and vice versa, and anything can happen—even in this relatively somber work, a cheesy genre-film shoot-out can explode in the street, sending Karina’s lost girl running like mad in the opposite direction, as if she’s suddenly found herself in the wrong film. “Reality” is a vulnerable quantity, and amid the usual cargo of signs and wonders, Godard steers the movie toward a questioning of surface and meaning, contemplating in an extended Q&A narration the gritty mechanics of prostitution (as opposed to the fantasy it represents), and engaging Nana in a philosophical café discussion about the difficulty of truth telling with Brice Parain, a famous French philosopher who paved the way for the poststructuralists by maintaining that language begat humanity, not the other way around. Eventually, the Young Man reads aloud from Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” the Borgesian thrust of which contemplates the costs of confusing the real and its simulacra. (“This is indeed Life itself!” the artist cries at the eponymous painting of his wife, as she wastes away.) There are scores of ways to read the film’s discourse, but the most moving may be to consider it as Godard’s manifest suspicion that, like Poe’s painter, he has loved his new and beautiful wife on film more than in real life. If A Woman Is a Woman is the Godard-Karina honeymoon and Made in U.S.A the relationship’s requiem, then you could say Vivre sa vie is the couple’s first morning after, when recriminations and hesitations begin to creep their way in.
Of course, Godard thought and wrote and spoke via cinema, so it was inevitable that he would love through it as well. Despite its topicality, the film, in the end, is about Karina, not about sex work as a phenomenon, and about how quickly she came to signify all women for Godard. One wonders what kind of 1960s there would have been if he had pursued and landed another actress. As it is, by way of Godard, Karina remains one of cinema’s greatest presences, not in terms of specific moments or “performance” but of her axiomatic role in redefining, with Godard, what movies are. You don’t watch Karina, or absorb her uncanny relationship with Godard’s camera (a bewitching rapport that has eluded Godard with any other actress, and Karina with any other director), for her diegetic conviction but for herself, alive and captured in the filmmaking moment, as if in amber. Which may also have been a facet of Godard’s thinking, as the woman lights one ritualistic cigarette after another and stares over the shoulders of her johns with darkened eyes: do we love her better on film as well? We will, also like Poe’s painter, turn around one day and find that Karina has gone the way of all flesh, of course. But she’ll still be here, hiding her feelings, twenty-one and worrisome and beloved.
Michael Atkinson writes about film for Sight & Sound, IFC.com, the Village Voice, and the L Magazine. He is the author of seven books, including the novels Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat. His website is zeroforconduct.com.