An Audacious Experiment: The Soundtrack of Vivre sa vie
This piece originally appeared in La revue du son in December 1962, and was translated by Royal S. Brown for his 1972 book Focus on Godard. When Jean Collet submitted the article for the collection, he wrote that his remarks were of only historical interest, since “today, all of the cinema and television utilize these techniques.” An editor’s note in the volume points out that this was precisely why the piece had been included, “as it shows one of the many ways in which Godard was technically ahead of his times.”
Those who have seen Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie—and particularly those who have heard it—will perhaps be amazed to find an article on this film appearing in La revue du son. One’s first impression is that the sound quality of this film does not seem especially remarkable; in fact, the dialogues are not even always audible. In the first scene, for instance, certain lines are lost in the din of the typical noises one hears in a café. The spectator who does not want to lose a word of what is being said has to really strain his ears. And even this does not always work.
One has to realize, however, that the soundtrack of Vivre sa vie represents the result of an extremely audacious experiment, a kind of challenge Godard kept in mind throughout the entire film. For not only was this film shot in natural settings, the soundtrack (both dialogues and noises) was also recorded directly. On a single track. This is no doubt the first sound film shot outside a studio and involving no sound editing. Almost the only mixing that was done was the addition of the music to a soundtrack recorded live during the shooting of the film.
This experiment is nothing less than revolutionary. For years now, shooting techniques have been becoming less and less restricted, thus allowing the visual part of the cinema to get rid of the various artifices that have long weighed it down. The proof of this lies in the greater and greater utilization of natural settings. But, paradoxically, this greater fidelity in the realm of pictures seems to have brought about a much less authentic use of sound. In order for a film to be shot in natural settings, the dialogues have to be postsynchronized: all of the synchronous noises have to be fabricated after the fact, as do the various appropriate “atmosphere” sounds. There are thus three or four sound tracks that have to be edited and mixed, in addition to the dialogue track. In this manner, it is quite easy to obtain an irreproachable sound quality. But there is no question of authenticity. And it is only because most directors have manifested great scorn for the “sound” end of their work that they have been able to permit such an incoherent aesthetic: pictures shot live and sound conscientiously pieced together with the help of a thousand or so gimmicks.
Jean-Luc Godard’s idea was simple: apply to the sound the same demands as to the pictures. Capture life—in what it offers to be seen and heard—directly. To obtain this result with the pictures, Raoul Coutard had to break with the tradition of “beautiful photography” that made the heyday of French cinema (permit me not to mention any names here . . .) through 1958. Now, nobody would think of reproaching Coutard for his overexposed shots. In order to obtain the same result with the sound, the same types of prejudices had to be swept away. Here, it was the engineer Guy Villette who had the courage to assume the responsibility of this undertaking. (It is to this same sound engineer that we owe the soundtracks of Last Year at Marienbad and Orson Welles’s The Trial.)
The equipment used was a portable, synchronous tape recorder of the Perfectone variety; the initial recording was made on 6.35 mm, which was eventually transferred onto a perforated 35 mm strip. The need to record both words and surrounding noises in particularly reverberant places (cafés, streets, and so forth) should have necessitated the use of extremely directional microphones, each one intended for a specific function. American studios have a number of such microphones at their disposal (RCA, for instance), but these were not to be found in the French studios at the time. Therefore, either AKG-D.25 or Neumann-type microphones, both of which are less directional than the American varieties, were employed.
In the best conditions, the sound recording was done with several microphones, and the mixing was done more or less during shooting; during Nana’s conversation with Brice Parain, for instance, each person speaking had a microphone. In other cases, however, the recording had to be made with a single microphone (such as in the first café scene), and the level of the surrounding noise is thus relatively high.
Godard refused to cheat with the rules he had set for himself, even in the scenes where this kind of cheating would have seemed indispensable, such as the café sequence in which Nana plays the jukebox. Normally, the record in question would simply be recorded directly onto the soundtrack. If one wants to be “true to life,” one usually settles, during the recording, for distorting the fidelity of a jukebox record by boosting the bass. Here, however, the sound was actually recorded in a café, with a great amount of care. And it is thus the jukebox we are really hearing. The same goes for the twist, during which we continue to hear the noises of the billiard game.
The interest offered by this method is obvious: the director opts for the real rather than the realistic. Being “realistic” always implies having a point of view on what is real, an interpretation of the facts. Here, an attempt has been made, thanks to the special machines used, to establish a material point of view rather than a human judgment. The microphone is capturing what it picks up, just as the camera is, and the artist avoids intervening at this level of the creation. And reality has its surprises, such as the noise of the heavy truck that fills the room and rises like a dramatic crescendo the first time Nana goes through the act of prostituting herself. Another example is in the very last sequence, when, at the moment of Nana’s death, a hospital bell is heard chiming in the silence of the deserted street. Such details cannot be invented. And the normal criterion of sound quality becomes worthless next to these moments of unexpected beauty that spring up out of everyday life.