Vivre sa vie, made in 1962, was the fourth of Jean-Luc Godard’s films. He had so far turned out a gangster-movie knockoff (Breathless), a dark political picture (Le Petit soldat), and a sort-of-musical comedy (Une femme est une femme). Now he was going for the exposé. His source was a journalistic account of prostitution in France, and in this as in so many matters, he was self-consciously echoing the American directors he admired, such as Samuel Fuller, whose Underworld U.S.A. (1961) was based on a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post. Also like Fuller, he didn’t exactly limit himself to a literal adaptation of his source material.
To watch Vivre sa vie, as with any of Godard’s early pictures, or indeed any of the films of the period by his fellow New Wavers, is to witness the sheer joy of moviemaking. A bunch of former critics, who for years had been watching with their noses pressed to the glass, were now cut loose to put all their pent-up theory into practice. They could take up where their favorite directors had left off, going them one better in daring, immediacy, improvisation, and passion. Every film is like a riposte in a cutting contest between jazz players, and Vivre sa vie is no exception.
Godard hangs his dare out right away, opening with a lengthy scene between Nana (Anna Karina) and her former husband (André Labarthe), in which the two converse with their backs to the camera. A rule is broken, yes, indeed, but it’s not arbitrary—their poses immediately tell us most of what we need to know about the ruin of their relationship. Nana, whose name alludes to Zola’s character and, more importantly, to Jean Renoir’s adaptation, has theatrical ambitions, is always short of money, wants to live intensely. So, accidentally on purpose, she becomes a prostitute. Her story is divided into twelve tableaux, with intertitles like chapter headings. Breaking up the story this way provides the requisite Brechtian distance, but it also follows function. Her life is, in fact, a series of apparently random turns, what-the-hell decisions that nevertheless add up, point her doomward. The structure throws you the keys. You fill in the rest. The end is shocking, but by the time you get there it is inevitable.
The story, grim as it is, is in some ways an excuse, contrived to allow for a maximum of large and incidental pleasures. Foremost is Anna Karina herself, one of the most beautiful and seductive actresses in the whole history of the movies. You get to see her express moods from A to Z, and also fling herself around a barroom in a wild dance convincingly made up on the spot. There is also Paris, many bleak but eloquent corners of it that don’t look like that anymore. Along the way there is literature (mostly Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”), philosophy (a Socratic dialogue with Brice Parain), music (an effective, minimal score by Michel Legrand), and, of course, photography, through the great cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s brilliantly graphic eye. Godard claimed that this was the first movie in which he dispensed with shot composition, just set up quickly and called action. You’ll wonder why more directors don’t try that.