Jean Luc-Godard will turn eighty this year, and he's still making films that shake the conventional wisdom about what a film should do or be. He's the patriarche terrible of contemporary film. 1962's Vivre sa vie is a key film in Godard's oeuvre: the most memorable pairing with his legendary muse Anna Karina and a fine example of Godard's experimental affronts to cinematic conventions, his exploration of the human condition, and his concern for social issues. Seeking what he called "the common ground between realism and theatricality," Godard crafted in Vivre sa vie a Brechtian tale—"a film in 12 tableaux"—of a girl's descent into prostitution.
The film's title sequence regards, at length, Karina's face, wearing a haunted expression of—is it defeat? Shame? Worry? In keeping with the interruptive stutter of Michel Legrand's music, Godard pulls us away, later to return to this moment in time to put it into context. The girl is Nana, a poor Parisian shopgirl, age 22, "who sells her body but keeps her soul while going through a series of adventures allowing her to experience all possible deep human emotions." Her movement into prostitution is inspired by financial need and existential despair. A single mother, neither she nor her estranged "baby daddy" Paul can afford to raise their (unseen) child, who lives in the custody of a friend. To make ends meet and partly, it seems, out of curiosity, Nan takes tentative steps into the world's oldest profession and keeps putting one foot in front of the other until the amateur is a professional in a dangerous criminal world.
Godard was largely inspired by Marcel Sacotte's 1959 book Oú en est: La prostitution, and in one respect the film is a sociological, almost documentary study of how prostitution functions in 1960s Paris. But it also an overtly philosophical film, with a tableau given over to philosopher of language Brice Parain (who discusses his subject with our hero Nana) and a contemplation, a la Sartre, of the difference between being and essence. Thirdly, Vivre sa vie is a deeply personal consideration of a career-long obsession of Godard's: the way art translates life, both for the artist and the audience. Besides being intimate and potent proof of Godard's loving attention to Karina, body and soul, the film might imply the relationship between actor and prostitute, director and pimp. Furthermore, Godard makes lengthy allusions to literature (Poe's The Oval Portrait), music (a Jean Ferrat song in a café), and film itself: in what must be Vivre sa vie's most famous scene, Nana has an emotional break at the movies: a matinee of Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent of suffering La passion de Jeanne d'Arc.
Vivre sa vie stands on its own as a French New Wave Stations of the Cross that's cerebral, but also—in Karina's indelibly haunted performance and Godard's carefully constructed delivery system of powerful blows—emotional. The film turns out to be not so much about prostitution or one woman's tragedy, but about a much larger and more universal question: the elusiveness of truth, the problem of existence. Which brings us back to very nearly the start of the film, its first tableaux and the film's most audacious image: Nana, seated at a café counter, seen from behind. For the entire scene, we are staring at the back of her head, disappearing into the void of her black, Louise Brooks bob in the hopes of understanding what she's thinking. What will follow is a story of encroaching darkness brought to us by the light of the cinema. Though Godard dedicates the picture to "B" movies, his mystery isn't a crime to be solved (or is it?): it's life.
Criterion's debut Blu-ray edition of Vivre sa vie features a glorious black-and-white transfer with natural film grain and lovely contrast. The source of this new hi-def transfer is clean, detail is exceptional, and there's no sign of any nasty digital artifacting. The LPCM mono track is certainly an authentic representation of the film's original sound, scrupulously cleaned up with Criterion's audio tools.
As always, the feature is surrounded by outstanding academic bonus features that enrich one's experience of the film. Foremost is a well-considered audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, recorded in 2001, that provides historical context and interpretation of the film.
"Jean Narboni on Vivre Sa Vie" (45:15, HD) finds the French film scholar in fine fettle as he offers his own take on the film.
"Cinépanorama: Anna Karina" (11:05, HD) is a vintage interview with Karina focusing entirely on her relationship with Godard (one feels sorry for the actress as she's plugged for gossip—it's as if she's Nana all over again).
"Faire Face: 'La Prostitution'" (21:28, HD) comprises excerpts from a 1961 broadcast that includes interviews with Paris' director of police Max Fernet and Marcel Sacotte, author of Oú en est: La Prostitution, the 1959 book that inspired Godard.
Oú en est: La Prostitution is a gallery of photos from Sacotte's book, paired with an essay by James Williams about the book's connection to the film.
Rounding out the disc are a Stills Gallery and "Godard's Trailer" (2:22, HD). Packaged with the disc is a handsome 40-page booklet featuring Godard's original scenario, an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, vintage interviews with Godard, and a piece by critic Jean Collet on the film's groundbreaking soundtrack.
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