Much like life itself, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie is a film structured into distinct chapters. When thinking about one’s life, it is not possible to recall every facet of detail along the way. This motion picture is the same. There are twelve chapter headings, and it is sometimes unclear just how much time has passed between each section of the story. It plays out as if the main character, Nana (portrayed by Anna Karina), is looking back on the decisions and events that led to her end — her death. The narrative’s style, wonderfully utilized by Godard, effectively splits Vivre sa vie into twelve short films, each of which has been tangentially connected by their lead character. It has an overarching plot, but lacks cohesion, like one’s memory. It helps to aid the storytelling, which is in stark contrast to what it might appear at the beginning. If a story is disjointed, split up, and missing pieces, it would not seem at the outset to be better than if it was all there. However, Godard makes it work by relaying it to the way people recall memories. This is not the only stylistic choice used in order to present the characters with more depth than is initially supposed, but it is the most obvious and a good jumping off point when looking at the movie.
Each chapter heading is shown just like it might have been written on the screenplay of any movie. All that is missing is whether the scene takes place inside or outside, which can be assumed depending on the locations. “Tableau one: A bistro — Nana wants to leave Paul — Pinball,” the first chapter reads. Presented first is the number of the chapter the film is on, which ascends chronologically from one to twelve. Secondly, there is the primary location. In the first chapter, it takes place in a bistro. Later on, it might be in a police station, or in the streets. The third descriptor tells us Nana’s feelings during this scene. Finally, there is another object. In this case, it’s a pinball machine. Its importance is not signified in this initial scene, however it becomes one of the motifs throughout the film. Whenever the bistro is entered, there it sits, in the corner, often being played by someone. It is important to note that the final three of these short notes can be rearranged depending on the scene, or what Godard feels is the most significant. For instance, in Tableau nine, all we get is “A young man — Nana wonders if she’s happy.” There is no location or object here. The focus here is on a young man, and on what Nana is feeling at this point in time. Everything else is in the background, and at the chapter’s outset, this is what Godard puts into the head of his audience. He has already tailored their thoughts perfectly for what is about to be shown.
The first shot of each chapter, after the heading, is intriguing. There is only one time where a person’s face is unobstructed in the shot directly following the chapter heading. In chapters one, four, six, eight and twelve, the first thing seen in the frame is a human head, but not the entirety of a character’s face. Obscured by the camera being placed behind the head or to the side, by shadows, or even a book, there is no possibility to glimpse the whole face. It is only in chapter ten, after Nana has become a prostitute and her life is finally looking up, that we get to see a face — any face, but more important because it is hers; the face in chapter twelve’s opening shot is not of Nana, but of Raoul (played by Sady Rebbot). The difference comes from the framing. In earlier shots, the openings which were not establishing shots, the framing was always much tighter. Godard presented the audience with close-ups. However, when a clear shot is finally given, it is in a medium long shot. While finally allowing the audience to see Nana for all she is worth, Godard also distances her from the camera, and anyone watching, simply by moving the camera back a few steps. This is a subtle, yet effective way of directing the emotions and thoughts of the viewer.
Vivre sa vie also brings forward the idea of showing a movie within the movie. He has Nana go watch the classic film The Passion of Joan of Arc in the third chapter, showing one of the many scenes of interrogation throughout it. Some editing was done to Theodor Dryer’s film — after a while, the intertitles were replaced with subtitles — but the film remains as poignant as it was previously, just a tad shorter. This is not done just because Godard is a fan of that film, but for two reasons. The first is that it once again makes a philosophical point, something that becomes a running theme throughout Vivre sa vie, while the second is that in a later scene, the sound is removed from the film and all dialogue comes across via subtitles. This not only has the viewer remember the issues of the scene shown from Passion, but also relates that entire film — or, at least, the emotion felt within that film — to Nana. She feels interrogated, persecuted, threatened, and mistreated in this scene. It is a perfect example of the “show, do not tell,” school of storytelling; it is observed what Nana feels because of an earlier scene, so it is not necessary for her to express that with words.
That the film brings up philosophical questions is not in itself a unique notion. That it does it in lieu of plot progression, just to make the characters and the audience think, is. When watching Vivre sa vie nowadays, one can easily think about Quentin Tarantino and his Pulp Fiction, and just how liberally the 1994 film borrowed from Godard’s. Chapter eleven is the most prevalent, which situates Nana inside a restaurant, and has her converse with an elderly man for a good while. They discuss words, thoughts, how those two things cannot be separated, and how silence is something as powerful as discourse. It is almost impossible to not think of Vincent and Mia’s conversation in a diner about the power of silence and what it means to a couple’s relationship. Or even the one between Jules and Vincent. Much of Tarantino’s dialogue, from all of his films, is done in the same manner as that of Godard’s in this film. It is interesting and intriguing even if it is not functional in advancing the plot right away. The films make great observations of the characters. The camera can sit there, observe them talking to each other, hanging on every word. Fancy or unconventional editing is rare — although it does sometimes crop up — as longer takes are preferred.
In terms of the editing, as few cuts as possible seems to be the goal of Godard with Vivre sa vie. This is perfectly captured by the initial shot of the first chapter, which has the camera stationary as Nana talks to the man she is leaving, Paul (André S. Labarthe), showing just the back of her head, not breaking or cutting until it is Paul’s turn to talk, drawing our focus to him. Later, in the record store, the camera moves with the action, instead of cutting to another one for a better angle. The French New Wave artists had to work with what they had, sometimes only granting them one camera for the entire movie. Whether or not that is the case here is unknown, but the stylistic approach to the editing remains. It immerses, and draws a viewer into the world, and feels almost like a documentary — like these events are actually taking place. The only time the editing draws attention to itself is when a series of jump cuts are used, in chapter six, where the camera pans right but a small cut happens every time the machine gun is fired, matching the rhythm set by the gun. Godard, the auteur, first used jump cuts in À bout de souffle, two years prior, and here seems to be paying homage to himself — which he did in Une femme est une femme, too, when he mentioned his earlier film — while also showing off a little flourish.
Even the title, “Vivre sa vie,” has some sense of allure to it. It translates to English as “to live one’s life,” although the film has been released in English-speaking regions as “My Life to Live.” There is a novel of the same name, although it features no connection to Godard’s film, and is not even about the same subject. It is a love story, while Vivre sa vie most assuredly is not. There is a song of the same title, too, but it also has no connection to the film. It has been suggested that it comes from a passage from Paul Sarte’s La Nausée, although even if that is true, Godard has made the phrase his own — something more meaningful. Even though the film is about a young woman living her life, there is also a double entendre present, as in France, prostitution is referred to as “the life.” It gives even more meaning to a very simple title
As is the New Wave way, there are many unconventional techniques used in the creation of Vivre sa vie. Filmed on the streets of Paris, it is sometimes possible to see non-actors looking at the camera, as if they are being drawn to the star, Anna Karina. Long takes are prevalent, and, according to an interview with Godard, were often accomplished in the first take. “If retakes were necessary, it was no good,” he was quoted as saying. The storytelling method played with the film form. It is not a simple A to B narrative; pieces are missing, and it is impossible to fill them in given the information given in the film. The camera moves to follow the action; if it is possible not to have an edit, that is usually the decision made. There are many existential and philosophical questions raised — some answered, some not — but the film, too, as the youthful New Wave director began to question life itself. The fourth wall is broken, to a haunting effect. It is a rebellious piece that often plays with story structure and film technique, like many of the New Wave films. Likely done for both practical or artistic reasons, Vivre sa vie could be described as avant-garde quite easily and correctly.
Indeed, it is true that there is a certain difficulty to get lost in the diegesis that Godard creates, specifically for this reason. By constantly playing with film, by pushing the boundaries, by drawing attention to the differences between his film and the ordinary, he makes the viewer always aware that they are watching a motion picture. Contrasting that — the style in which it was put together — with the documentary-like method in which it was filmed, seems to have the two styles playing against one another. On one hand, we have a director who wants to do more with the medium, drawing the attention of his audience to the way he created it. On the other, we have an unobtrusive camera just wanting to show the action how it is, unsatisfied with fancy editing within a scene. It is a combination that most directors would not attempt, but Godard does such an ease that it makes the contrasting styles feel like they belong together, like they should be paired and never separated.
It does not appear as if much of the mise-en-scène was created specifically for the film. Certainly the locations where Godard shot his film were chosen for certain reasons, but with a limited budget and New Wave mentality, it would be foolish to assume that much, if any, of the mise-en-scène was not already in place at the time of filming. All Godard would have to do is move some things around, and perhaps choose outfits out of his cast’s closets. Maybe the pinball machine was not in place before filming. The mise-en-scène is simple and realistic as a result, and furthers the documentary-like shooting style with which Godard approached the film.
The music in Vivre sa vie is very minimal. This is not the type of film that needs a loud, booming score anyway, but there are very few moments when its score is pivotal to the scene. Most of the time, it covers the silence, save for an important moment when Nana dances around a room, showing a glimpse of the expressive young woman that had to be left behind in order to pursue “the life.” In other scenes, it is often used early on, eagerly awaiting what will happen next. But, as soon as the dialogue begins, the music is off, waiting for its next chance to shine, building anticipation for the upcoming scene before it even really starts. Dialogue is usually very clear, except when it is intentionally obscured or turned off completely, as in the scene when Vivre sa vie mimics a silent movie, harkening back to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
There is a reason that Jean-Luc Godard is mentioned among the great filmmakers of history, and Vivre sa vie is one of those reasons. He takes a pretty simple story, chops off some of the parts — making it feel like something out of a memory — shoots it in a similar style to a documentary, layers it with depth and playing with film form, creating an unforgettable work of art. It contains twelve chapters, all of which are engaging for many reasons. The camera sits there, follows the action, but rarely blinks, allowing the viewer to absorb everything perfectly. Long takes were common, and, if Godard is to be believed, the first take was used more often than not. Everything came into place for the first time, and most of the time it wound up in the final product. That is not to say that more unconventional editing was not used. Jump cuts, popular coming out of Godard’s À bout de souffle, occur once, for example, rhythmically edited to sync up with machine gun fire. The film is very typical of the New Wave in general, being shot on the cheap, on location, and in questioning both film conventions, and life itself. It brings up many philosophical and existential points, answering many, and will sometimes pause itself just to ponder these questions. It plays for just over 80 minutes, but it takes the time to smell the roses, so to speak. Even the title, “Vivre sa vie,” is thoughtful enough to warrant a discussion. Everything about this movie can be dissected, picked apart, and it all works toward the ultimate goal of making the audience think, provoking an emotional response, and — on a more technical level — questioning the way a film is made. All questions, asked and answered.